The Government is to legalise the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in a significant change to its hardline policy on drugs.
The highly controversial move represents a compromise between Mo Mowlam, the Cabinet Office Minister, who wanted a government-ordered review of whether cannabis should be decriminalised, and Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who both adamantly opposed any relaxation of the law.
What has now been agreed is to allow people suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), and other conditions which bring severe pain, to use cannabis legally. Ms Mowlam, who took over responsibility for drugs last October, has failed in an attempt to persuade Mr Blair to set up a Royal Commission to review the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which critics claim is out of date.
Such a review could have paved the way for possessing cannabis for personal use to be decriminalised. But Mr Blair and Mr Straw have rejected the idea, arguing that any weakening of the government stance could encourage young people to experiment with soft drugs and then, they believe, to move on to hard drugs.
But senior government sources told The Independent yesterday that Ms Mowlam will win her battle to allow cannabis to be used legally for therapeutic purposes. "It is a trade-off," a Home Office source said. "Mo will get the OK for medicinal use but she won't get anything else."
The final go-ahead will come after human trials which are expected to confirm that cannabis can have medical benefits. Research using mice at University College London found that cannabis can ease some of the painful symptoms of multiple sclerosis and prevent muscle aches and tremors.
The British Medical Association and a House of Lords select committee have backed human trials, and further pressure for a relaxation of the law for therapeutic use may come next Tuesday when the Police Foundation will publish the results of a two-year study into the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
The independent inquiry, which enjoys semi-official status at the Home Office, is expected to recommend that people should no longer be jailed for possessing cannabis for their own use and that ecstasy should be downgraded from its present status as a Class A drug alongside heroin.
The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are thought unlikely to support these two proposals. Close allies say Mr Blair's attitude to the drugs menace has hardened in recent weeks after meeting police chiefs at Downing Street. "He sees the threat to children and thinks of his own kids," one aide said. Ministers say no decision has been made on how the law should be relaxed for medicinal use. Options include allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis on a "named patient" basis and letting sufferers grow or buy the drug for their own exclusive use with the written support of their doctor.
Yesterday four Labour MPs tabled a Commons motion urged the Government to allow the therapeutic use of cannabis, speed up the human trials and order the police not to prosecute people with MS, Aids, arthritis and the relief of severe pain who use the drug with their doctor's permission.
They said sufferers should not be "forced on to the streets to purchase illegal drugs or face an omnipresent threat of prosecution which puts the sick and dying on the front line of the war on drugs".
The MPs want people to be allowed to use raw cannabis until a drug using its active chemicals, called cannabinoids, has been developed.
But the BMA has reservations about raw cannabis because some of its properties are harmful. Tar levels are three times the level of cigarettes, and new research suggests that smoking four joints causes as much lung damage as 20 cigarettes.
The move to allow medicinal use would be seen by campaigners for decriminalisation a small first step towards their goal - despite Mr Blair implacable opposition to any further softening.
Ms Mowlam, who last month admitted smoking marijuana as a student in the Seventies, has backed calls by Keith Hellawell, the Government's anti-drugs co-ordinator, for the police to concentrate their efforts on the war against hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Her comments are said to have gone down badly in Downing Street and the Home Office.