A new ruling from the Lord Chief Justice: Let's talk about dope head

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The Independent Online
The country's most senior judge called for an open debate on decriminalising the use of cannabis, Our Legal Affairs Editor says Lord Bingham has reignited a controversial debate that the Government wishes would go away.

Yesterday's statement by the Lord Chief Justice gave a significant boost to the growing campaign for the decriminalisation of soft drugs. "It is a subject that deserves, in my judgment, detached, objective, independent consideration," he said.

The campaign to ditch a law which to many has been long discredited, has been led by the Independent on Sunday and a growing number of celebrities and public figures in the face of government hostility.

High-profile figures, such as Sir Paul McCartney, have declared their backing for the decriminalisation of cannabis. But the Lord Chief Justice's support for a detailed examination of the subject is the first contribution to the current debate from a senior member of the legal establishment.

Others backing the campaign range right across public life, and include the authors Martin Amis and Fay Weldon, Alan Yentob, director of television at the BBC, playwright Harold Pinter, Sir Kit McMahon, former chairman of the Midland Bank, actor Richard Wilson, the Body Shop owner Anita Roddick and Richard Branson.

Lord Bingham emphasised that he was not expressing a concluded view on decriminalisation, but welcomed the recent decision by the independent Police Foundation to mount an inquiry into the entire issue.

"It may very well be that the result of such consideration would be that to tinker with the current prohibition would be madness, but that doesn't seem to me an argument against considering the suggestion," he said during his second set-piece news conference, which is now to become an annual autumn event.

If an objective, independent study showed that existing law was 100 per cent correct, that would reassure everybody, he said.

His remarks came less than a week after Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, ruled out any moves towards decriminalisation of cannabis in his speech to the Labour Party conference, and a week ahead of the appointment of the new "drugs tsar" who will co-ordinate a Whitehall-wide offensive to combat drug abuse.

Tony Blair and his Government have fought shy of the subject ever since Clare Short, now Secretary of State for International Development, dared to speculate openly about legalising cannabis while Labour was in opposition. Only the Liberal Democrats support a full-scale inquiry by a Royal Commission; the study commissioned by the Police Foundation, which receives financial backing from the Prince of Wales' Trust, has already been dubbed the "unofficial" Royal Commission.

In the last fortnight, however, two Labour backbenchers, Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West and Gordon Prentice, MP for Pendle, have put their heads above the parapet and joined the campaign for decriminalisation launched by the Independent on Sunday a fortnight ago.

Mike Goodman, of Release, the drugs advice charity, welcomed the Lord Chief Justice's remarks. "I think it is a refreshingly candid contribution to one of the most important debates at the moment," he said.

But Mr Straw has branded the decriminalisation lobby "irresponsible", warning that consumption would go up, leading to high rates of absenteeism, aggravation of mental illness and more people switching to hard drugs.

Jane Betts, the mother of Leah Betts, who died after taking ecstasy at her 18th birthday party, said: "I view with worry proposals like this because very often the outcome is predetermined."

The Conservative home affairs spokesman, Sir Brian Mawhinney, said: "This party does not believe that drugs should be decriminalised."

Brian Mackenzie, president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said he opposed any move towards decriminalisation."Any relaxation in the attitude towards prosecuting people for the possession of drugs would be a wrong step. It would send totally the wrong signal.

"By all means have a debate, but I think the vast majority of the public agrees with us and is against legalisation or decriminalisation. To do so would simply increase drugs usage and that would be a mad move."

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said: "More research is always welcome in any area, but we support the Government's policy and oppose the concept of decriminalisation."

Lord Bingham also used the press conference to welcome the Government's decision to make the European Convention on Human Rights a part of British law while warning of the consequences for the media. "I do think this will lead inevitably to the development in this country of a law of privacy," he said. But he emphasised that the convention also protected the press's right to free speech.

"What is going to have to be confronted is the demarcation boundary between free speech and privacy," he said. In deciding which side to come down on, the courts would apply a test of public interest, he said.

The reporting of wrongdoing by an individual in public office would be considered to be in the public interest and justify intrusion into their privacy but the same would not apply to matters affecting their private lives which did not affect their office, he said.