Cannabis campaign fails to sway political leaders

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The Independent Online
The legalisation of cannabis was put firmly back on the social agenda yesterday when the Independent on Sunday launched a campaign to de-criminalise the drug.

Support for the move from a prominent Labour MP will cause embarrassment for the party leadership as they begin their conference but will also ensure the debate will continue. Michael Streeter finds the Home Secretary quick to respond.

The swift rejection by Jack Straw yesterday of any suggestion that cannabis should be legalised was predictable.

New Labour does not want to scare off the Home Counties/ Daily Mail readers it picked up at the election, and Mr Straw's language was unequivocal. Interviewed on television he said: "What I regard as so irresponsible about those who say we should decriminalise possession of small amounts of cannabis is this: one thing which would follow, as night follows day, is that consumption would shoot up." The drug could aggravate mental illness and lead to high rates of absenteeism, he added.

However, the impressive list of supporters - many of them experts - for the new media campaign may not be dismissed so easily. They include a former member of Greater Manchester Police drugs squad, detective chief inspector Roy Clarke, who said he became fed up with the criminalisation of "otherwise innocent young kids" for taking the drug. Another supporter, consultant psychiatrist Dr Philip Robson, adds that "many doctors even believe the cannabis and its derivatives should be available again on prescription". Celebrity backers include Richard Branson, Sir Paul McCartney and film director Michael Winner. The campaign highlights the "hypocrisy" of banning cannabis while alcohol consumption is allowed.

Paul Flynn, the Labour MP who came out publicly in favour of legalisation, has promised to raise the matter with colleagues on the all-party Drugs Misuse Group in November to try to establish new research. A party spokesman insisted : "MP's are entitled to their own views".

The new calls for legalisation - long supported by The Independent - come as the Government prepares to announce its chosen candidate to be Britain's first drugs tsar to lead the fight against drug abuse - one of Labour's election pledges.

It also coincided with a protest in Hyde Park, London, where campaigners for decriminalisation openly smoked the drug in front of police officers, to mark the 69th anniversary of legislation to ban cannabis.

The prevalence of cannabis was meanwhile underlined by a survey which showed that three in 10 schoolchildren aged 14-15 have tried the drug at least once. However, the "Young People in 1996" study suggested that only half of those boys and a third of the girls had taken it regularly.

Mr Straw's reaction won support yesterday from Paul Betts, the father of teenager Leah Betts who died after taking Ecstasy. He said: "Every single heroin or other addict we have spoken to has all started with cannabis."