Scientists today cleared the way for a softening of the law on cannabis,
declaring that the drug "is not associated with major health problems for
the individual or society".

The Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs found that while
cannabis smokers can become dependent, the drug is not as addictive as
tobacco or alcohol.

Although cannabis may pose risks for people with heart problems, or for
schizophrenics, the dangers are not so great as in the case of other drugs
such as amphetamine, say the scientists. In healthy young people, cannabis
is even said to have a similar effect on the heart as exercise.

The findings are sure to dismay some anti-drugs campaigners who regard
cannabis as a "gateway drug" which can lead users to experiment with harder
substances, such as heroin.

At the moment, cannabis is a Class B drug, one rung down from cocaine,
heroin and ecstasy, but on a par with amphetamine or "speed". In October,
Home Secretary David Blunkett signalled his intention to downgrade cannabis
to Class C alongside steroids and some sleeping pills - meaning that being
caught with small amounts would no longer be an arrestable offence.

Today's advisory council report says cannabis is less harmful than other
Class B drugs, adding: "The continuing juxtaposition of cannabis with these
more harmful Class B drugs, erroneously ( and dangerously) suggests that
their harmful effects are equivalent."

It makes clear that alcohol is far more damaging than cannabis to health
and society at large because it encourages risk-taking and leads to
aggressive and violent behaviour.

Today's report - always expected to support downgrading - is seen as the
next step toward the biggest change in the drugs laws for more than 30 years.

Both the Commons and the Lords will have to debate and vote on the issue
before the law can be changed and the Home Secretary will wait until he has
read two more key reports before he asks Parliament to look at the question.

First, he wants to see a study of the Metropolitan Police's Lambeth
experiment where people caught with cannabis have been let off with a
warning and simply had the drug confiscated. Then he will read the home
affairs select committee's wide-ranging report on the Government's drugs

A Home Office source said any change in the law would come "in the summer
at the earliest". It would still be possible to go to jail for dealing in
cannabis, but people caught with small amounts for personal use would
likely face only confiscation and a formal warning.

Pubdate: Thu, 14 Mar 2002
Source: London Evening Standard (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Associated Newspapers Ltd.
Author: David Taylor, Home Affairs Correspondent