The finding by the Government's drugs advisory body that cannabis is
less addictive than alcohol or tobacco is the latest in a long series
of acknowledgements that Britain's drug laws are unnecessarily draconian.

The status of cannabis as a Class B substance under the Misuse of
Drugs Act 1971 has long been criticised as being out of step with
public opinion of the dangers of the drug.

According to the latest British Crime Survey, 52 per cent of people
aged between 20 and 24 admitted smoking cannabis.

The Government has been placed in a difficult position. On the one
hand, swathes of young people are taking illicit substances
recreationally every weekend and regard drug laws as antiquated and
not credible. But on the other, ministers have been conscious of
rising public fears over the criminality of addicts, drug turf wars on
the streets, and the illegal trade's bankrolling of organised crime.

During his tenure as Home Secretary, Jack Straw vainly resisted
change, ignoring the recommendations in a major report by the Police
Foundation last year that cannabis, ecstasy and LSD should all be downgraded.

But Mr Straw's successor, David Blunkett, realised last October that
something had to give; a cannabis law that provided for five-year jail
sentences for possession did not tally with public attitudes.

Paving the way for the first relaxation of drugs legislation in 30
years, he pointed out that it was important that Britain's drug
legislation was "taken seriously by young people", and proposed that
cannabis be downgraded alongside tranquillisers, and its possession
made a non-arrestable offence.

Yesterday the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs went even
further. Not only did it uphold Mr Blunkett's recommendation for
reclassification, but it observed that the "dependence potential" of
cannabis was "substantially less than that of Class B drugs such as
amphetamine or, indeed, that of tobacco or alcohol".

Drug charities were delighted. Roger Howard, the chief executive of
DrugScope, said: "The ACMD has provided the hard scientific evidence
that backs up the move to reclassify cannabis, and we hope the Home
Secretary will quickly implement its advice."

Mr Howard praised the Home Secretary for being "willing to open up the
debate on drugs and consider moving towards a more logical and
pragmatic drugs policy".

DrugScope is among groups which would like to see Mr Blunkett go a lot
further in a programme of drug reform. In particular, it supports
calls for a reclassification of ecstasy from Class A to Class B. One
official estimate last year found that up to two million tablets of
the synthetic drug are being consumed by clubbers in Britain every
weekend.

In acknowledgement of this, the Home Office last week produced a Safer
Clubbing guide, in which for the first time it accepted that many
young people saw drug-taking as an "integral part" of their social
life.

It called on clubs up and down the country to provide special
facilities for drug users, including chill-out rooms, treatment areas
and plentiful supplies of water.

Conservative commentators have been predictably horrified by the
developments.

Paul Betts, whose daughter Leah died after taking ecstasy, said
yesterday that the proposed downgrading of cannabis was the start of
the "slippery slope" towards decriminalisation.

The former police officer, who is now a drugs-awareness campaigner,
claimed that the Government had reneged on its promises to be hard on
drugs. "This has just proved they are liars," he said. "This is the
start of the slippery slope. They are scared to say it's dangerous."

Wary of similar accusations that the Government was turning soft on
drugs, Downing Street quickly issued a statement yesterday that "there
are no plans for decriminalisation or legalisation".

But further relaxation of existing legislation seems certain. The
Department of Health has finally heeded the cries of many sufferers
from multiple sclerosis and other serious conditions that cannabis use
helps to ease their pain.

Findings of a research project on the medical benefits of the drug
have been forwarded to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence.
The licensing of cannabis for medical use is now widely regarded as an
inevitability.

Where the law stands on the most common drugs

Cocaine

Status: Class A and subject to maximum sentence of seven years in jail, or an
unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: No prospect of reform. Cocaine use is increasing faster than that of
any other Class A drug and dependency on the highly addictive derivative
crack is linked to acquisitive crime.

Heroin

Status: Class A and subject to a maximum sentence of seven years in jail, or
an

unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: There are calls to extend prescription of the drug to addicts,
currently only provided by a handful of authorised doctors. The

Government is not likely to heed such calls.

Cannabis

Status: Class B and subject to a maximum jail sentence of five years, or an
unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: Home Secretary's proposal to re-classify to Class C upheld yesterday
by Advisory Council on the

Misuse of Drugs. This would mean a maximum sentence of two
years.

Amphetamines

Status: Class B and subject to a maximum sentence of five years'
imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: There are no proposals to relax the law for amphetamines, also
called speed, which the advisory council has said is far more harmful than
cannabis.

Ecstasy

Status: Class A and subject to maximum sentence of seven years in jail or an

unlimited fine for possession.

Changes: Drugs charities want ecstasy, which is regularly used by people
going to nightclubs,

re-categorised to Class B. However, the Government is resisting their
calls.


Newshawk: Free_the_Weed
Pubdate: Fri, 15 Mar 2002
Source: Independent (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Contact: letters@independent.co.uk
Website: http://www.independent.co.uk/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/209
Author: Ian Burrell, Home Affairs Correspondent