It was enough to give even the notoriously clean-living home secretary a
headache. On almost every conceivable measure, David Blunkett's advisers
told him, the war against drugs was floundering.

While cannabis had become de rigueur at middle-class dinner parties, the
police were still under orders to arrest anyone found smoking it.

According to one report handed to Blunkett, two thirds of all drug busts
involved possession of cannabis, and each one tied up police officers for
up to three hours. Almost half of all 16 to 29-year-olds had experimented
with the drug.

Since the 1960s not one of his predecessors had resolved the dilemma. He
laid the groundwork for last week's announcement immediately after he was
made home secretary in June. Keith Hellawell, the "drug czar", was pushed
aside, and Blunkett seized control of drug policy from the Cabinet Office.

The beginnings of his softer line on cannabis emerged in the south London
borough of Brixton, where Brian Paddick, the local police commander,
decided there was no longer any point arresting everyone found with
cannabis. Blunkett visited the scheme, inviting television news crews to
record it.

His mind was made up. According to Bob Ainsworth, the drug minister, the
amount of police time wasted in pursuing trivial cases - with average fines
of UKP87 - meant that a more liberal approach had to be introduced. But
leaving local police chiefs to decide how harshly cannabis users should be
dealt with risked making a mockery of the law.

Ainsworth said: "We have a tradition in this country where we ensure laws
are enforced and, to retain their credibility, they must command widespread
support. This is not compatible with widespread variations in police practice."

Blunkett secured Tony Blair's agreement to reclassify cannabis as a
category C drug, saying this would enable the police to spend more time
tackling the 250,000 people estimated to use category A drugs.

However, while proposing that possession of cannabis should become a
non-arrestable offence, he stopped short of legalising it. Supply remains
in the hands of criminals, which many have argued means cannabis smokers
come into contact with more dangerous drugs.

A Whitehall source attempted to defend the policy. "We are only reviewing
possession, not supply, so the issue did not arise," he said.

However, in a Mori poll published this weekend, 65% say cannabis should be

The downgrading of the drug from class B to C is expected to be approved
early next year, after a review by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of
Drugs. But it may not be a foregone conclusion. Blunkett is braced for
criticism from Hellawell, who will be asked on Tuesday by the home affairs
select committee if he agrees with this strategic retreat.

Whitehall insiders said this weekend that Hellawell, who remains an adviser
to the Home Office, had not been consulted on the climbdown. One said: "He
has taken a firm stance against this very idea, arguing that a formal
change sends out the wrong signals."

New research into the damaging effects of cannabis may also rally
opposition to Blunkett's recommendation. Experts say new strains of
virulent "skunk" are up to 20 times stronger than the "wacky baccy" smoked
by the Woodstock generation, and compare its effects to the difference
between vodka and a shandy.

As Tom, 26, a music producer, said: "Skunk is a lot stronger than hash or
weed. It drives you bonkers, and with one type, Northern Lights, you see
flashes of light."

Heather Ashton, a government adviser on cannabis, said there was a tendency
to underestimate the effects of high doses of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC),
the active ingredient in cannabis.

"The reefers they used to smoke in flower power days contained about 1%
THC, whereas skunk has about 20%," she said. "It affects the memory,
aggravates schizophrenia and has risks for heart disease and also in

Newshawk: puff_tuff
Pubdate: Sun, 28 Oct 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Nicholas Hellen and John Elliott
Bookmark: (Cannabis)