Cannabis is now just a signature away from legitimacy. (Over to you, Mr Blunkett)

Relax law, say government advisers; Reform would be first for 30 years; Lib Dems vote for legalisation
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Indy Politics

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, will be told this week by his official panel of drug advisers to downgrade cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug. The change, which would enable users to smoke a joint in the street without fear of arrest, would be the first relaxation of drug laws in Britain for 30 years.

Yesterday, in a separate initiative, the Liberal Democrats became the first major political party to vote for the full legalisation of cannabis. They also voted for an end to prison sentences for those caught in possession of other drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy and heroin, and called for ecstasy to be downgraded from a Class A to a Class B drug.

The vote came as the Home Office considers recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that cannabis should be given the same status as prescription tranquillizers such as valium, making its possession a non-arrestable offence.

A source close to Mr Blunkett said last night the Home Secretary was now "minded" to downgrade the drug. The advisory committee is considered the authoritative voice on drugs classification and it would be unusual for the Home Secretary to ignore its advice. The committee's findings will increase pressure on Mr Blunkett to make a formal announcement of the reform the laws on cannabis. A senior government source told The Independent on Sunday: "He [the Home Secretary] said he was minded to do it [reclassify cannabis]. He will make a final decision when all of the information is in front of him."

As well as the committee's research, there are at least four other studies being carried out into the policing of cannabis which are expected to be presented to the Government over the next two months.

Next Wednesday, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will reveal that up to £50m a year is spent on policing cannabis and the time this involves is equivalent to the work of 500 police officers a year. The Metropolitan Police and the Police Foundation are also compiling separate reports into a pilot scheme by police in Lambeth, south London.

Originally planned to last six months, senior officers have found the scheme in Brixton, where cannabis users are not arrested but given on-the-spot warnings, to be successful enough to warrant extending for the time being.

An inquiry into drugs, including cannabis, is also being carried out by members of the Home Affairs select committee who are expected to report to the Government this April.

The debate over downgrading cannabis gained momentum last October when Mr Blunkett announced that he had decided in favour of changing the law. He proposed to end the power of police to arrest people caught with the drug for their own use. This was partly so that officers could concentrate on hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. His decision to change the drug laws was announced to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

At the time, the Home Secretary emphasised that he was not decriminalising or legalising cannabis. "Cannabis would remain a controlled drug and using it a criminal offence," he said. "In spite of our focus on hard drugs, the majority of police time is currently spent on handling cannabis offences. It is time for an honest and common-sense approach focusing on drugs that cause most harm."

The Home Secretary commissioned the ACMD to report on the medical and social impact of cannabis. Their report was completed several weeks ago but has been held on to by the Home Office.

Drugs charities and experts say they welcome the committee's report.

Roger Howard, chief executive of DrugScope, said he wanted the Government to promise that there would be no fines or cautions for personal possession of the drug.

"If this report is true, then DrugScope warmly welcomes it," he added. "It's refreshing to see a Home Secretary at last moving towards a sensible, logical and evidence-based drugs policy."

Viscountess Runciman, a former member of the committee and campaigner for reform, said this was a "very significant development".

"This is not to say cannabis is a harmless drug," she added. "It does remain a controlled drug. There is still a lot of incoherence in our laws. This will bring the law in line with Brixton."