Two out of three people say they want a debate in Parliament about the decriminalisation of cannabis ...
The British public is firmly behind the Independent on Sunday campaign to decriminalise cannabis - and opposed to the Government's obdurate stand. A resounding eight out of 10 think the marijuana law should be relaxed, in defiance of current government policy, according to a poll conducted for the IoS by MORI.

The call last week by Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, for a debate on the subject - in contrast to the refusal by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to countenance any discussion - also met with warm approval. Virtually two-thirds, 64 per cent, think such a debate is a good idea.

In the 18 to 44 age group, support of a debate is an even higher 71 per cent. But even among the older generation, the over-45s, a clear majority want the Government to soften its approach. Fifty-seven per cent of over- 45s believe it is time for the legalisation of cannabis to be debated.

Two-thirds of men are in favour of debate, and six out of every 10 women. Looked at another way, among the middle-class or category ABC1s, three in four want the Government to back down, while in the traditional Labour working-class bedrock of support, a majority, 55 per cent, also want the issue aired in Parliament.

Tony Blair, already riding at an all-time high in the popularity stakes, could boost his appeal still further if he listened to the public on the cannabis issue. Overall, a quarter of the electorate said they would think more of the Labour government if it allowed a debate on marijuana, and only one in 10 said they would think less of it.

The argument by Mr Straw and other ministers that cannabis use leads to harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine is shared only by those among the older age group. Seventy-three per cent of over- 55s think taking pot leads to harder drugs. In the 18 to 44s - the generation that so decisively backed Labour at the election - that total is down to 43 per cent. In that age group, 47 per cent disagree with Mr Straw's claim that taking cannabis is the first step to hard drugs, while 10 per cent don't know.

Too much police time is spent prosecuting users of pot instead of clamping down on the more dangerous crack, cocaine and heroin. Over half, 55 per cent of the public, think the police should devote more time to prosecuting hard drug users.

In its random telephone poll of 619 people across Britain last Thursday, MORI asked if they took cannabis. Seven per cent said they did, 92 per cent said they did not while, perhaps surprisingly, only one person refused to answer the question.

Pressure mounts on the Government for a re-think. Brian Iddon, a science academic before he entered Parliament as Labour MP for Bolton South-East, will put his case for a reform of drugs law to the Home Office Minister, George Howarth, next week. "I don't think the 1971 legislation is working," said Mr Iddon. "We came from a British system of handling drugs, where they were available on prescription - including heroin - to adopting the American system, which is now being extended to the appointment of a drugs tsar."

Since the IoS launched its campaign on 6 October, Mr Iddon has become the third Labour backbencher to defy party policy to present a call for a change in the law, saying: "If we continue to put in more legislation, more enforcement on the ground, the only effect that will have is to put up the price of street drugs - the consequence of which will be more crime, because people have to pinch more stuff to pay the higher prices. In my honest opinion, this will not work."

Before entering the Commons Mr Iddon was Reader in Organic Chemistry at the University of Salford. "The drug-selling racket is the best example of pyramid selling we have ever seen," he argued. "What enforcement does is take 12 little minnows out of the bottom, and the pyramid simply re- forms. The only way to tackle the drugs problem is to collapse this financial pyramid."

Mr Iddon said the illegal drug trade is the third-largest industry in Britain. "We are looking at vast amounts of money - billions, I would suggest - out of the country's economy with no control, and that doesn't make sense. Not a single penny of tax is paid by this industry, and it costs society a fortune in its social devastation. It is sheer madness, and we have to stop it somehow."

The creation of the post of drug tsar, expected imminently, was an opportunity for a review of the law. "I am very saddened that the Government has not yet set up an inquiry," said Mr Iddon. "They could set it up with the appointment of the drug tsar. It would be timely."

Mr Iddon's argument stems in part from his scientific understanding of the chemical make-up of cannabis. "The vast majority of people who smoke cannabis do not proceed to other drugs," he insists. "[Those that do] would do so anyway, because they have serious psychological problems, which they think they can overcome by taking harder and harder drugs."