Huge majority want cannabis legalised

Government isolated as 80 per cent back our campaign for radical change in law
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The overwhelming majority of British people want the personal and medical use of cannabis to be made legal, according to a poll conducted for the Independent on Sunday.

Eighty per cent of the public want the law to be relaxed. Almost half those polled, 45 per cent, said they were in favour of the current restrictions being relaxed for those who needed cannabis for medicinal purposes, while more than one in three, 35 per cent, wanted it to be legally available for recreational use. The Government's policy of maintaining the status quo, that all cannabis possession should remain illegal, received the approval of one in six, 17 per cent.

In the under-45 age group, the number who believe cannabis should be available for personal use is an even higher 45 per cent. The belief among government ministers and advisers that the Independent on Sunday campaign to decriminalise cannabis only appeals to middle-class intellectuals is not borne out by the poll. More than half the working-class people polled by MORI for the Independent on Sunday, 55 per cent, thought a debate on a change in the law was a good idea.

Another blow to the Government's line that the campaign does not enjoy wide support was dealt by a phone-in poll published in the Labour-supporting Mirror yesterday, showing its readers voting by nearly two to one in favour of decriminalisation.

Ministers' increasing isolation on the issue is illustrated by this morning's MORI poll. Almost six out of 10 Tories, 59 per cent, are in favour of a debate as are seven out of 10, 68 per cent, of the Government's own Labour supporters.

Last week's unprecedented call by Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, for an open debate on legalising cannabis - to the embarrassment of ministers who have so far refused to have the issue aired in Parliament, let alone agree to a change in the law - met with approval from nearly two-thirds of the public, 64 per cent. MORI conducted the poll across Britain on Thursday afternoon, after Lord Bingham had made his widely reported remarks on Wednesday.

There are signs that the Government may be preparing to rethink its drugs strategy. One of the first tasks of the new "Drugs Tsar", Keith Hellawell, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, whose appointment is expected to be announced early this week, is to rewrite the policy statement, Tackling Drugs Together.

A new approach will be put to the Ministerial Committee on Drug Abuse, chaired by Ann Taylor, Leader of the Commons. Mrs Taylor last week visited France and Holland to investigate at first-hand the way other European countries handle the issue. She spent some time in an Amsterdam coffee shop, where limited amounts of cannabis for recreational use are legally on sale.

Mr Hellawell is likely to have as his deputy Mike Trace, director of the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners' Trust. Mr Trace is an expert on drug abuse in prisons and his appointment reflects the Government's desire to combat drugs, and concern over the size of Mr Hellawell's workload.

Another way to ease Mr Hellawell's burden would be to decriminalise cannabis. However, Downing Street sources continue to insist that is "not on the agenda". Backbench Labour MPs are urging ministers to broaden the policy review to allow consideration of legal use - particularly in the medical field. Health Secretary Frank Dobson told a television audience last week he would consider making cannabis legal, through a doctor's prescription, for sufferers of illnesses such as multiple sclerosis.

Brian Iddon, MP for Bolton South-East and a leading academic in the field of organic chemistry, is to ask the Government to go further and set up a full-scale inquiry - ideally a Royal Commis- sion - to consider radical measures to meet the challenges of Britain's "drug culture". He is to meet Home Office minister George Howarth on 26 October, the day Parliament reassembles, for talks on the Government's attitude to cannabis.

The Labour MP supports the "medicalisation" of cannabis so the drug could be sold over the counter by licensed chemists, with a warning about the possible side effects. "People have all kinds of choices in life," said Mr Iddon. "Why should they not be allowed to smoke cannabis, with proper procedures in place to warn them about the risks?"

Campaign update, Section Two