Drugs tsar and Mowlam at odds over cannabis

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The government's policy on drugs appeared to be in disarray yesterday after its anti-drugs co-ordinator, Keith Hellawell, insisted people who smoked cannabis were more likely to move on to hard drugs.

The government's policy on drugs appeared to be in disarray yesterday after its anti-drugs co-ordinator, Keith Hellawell, insisted people who smoked cannabis were more likely to move on to hard drugs.

Mr Hellawell claimed that new evidence showing a link between soft and hard drugs meant the argument for legalising cannabis was dead.

He also contradicted Mo Mowlam, the minister responsible for drugs policy, who said on Sunday that cannabis might not be "an addictive process" and that there was no clear scientific evidence to suggest it led to taking heroin.

Mr Hellawell said that a study in New Zealand, which observed the drug habits of 1,200 people from birth to the age of 21, proved cannabis acted as a "gateway" to more harmful hard drugs.

The survey found that young people who smoked a joint once a week were 60 times more likely to progress on to harder drugs than people who did not smoke cannabis.

He said: "The argument for the legalisation of cannabis is dead now. All the arguments say that cannabis should remain illegal.The pro-legalisers who have said that cannabis isn't a gateway drug will have to look at this hard and long."

Mr Hellawell was presenting his second annual report on the Government's long-term drugs programme, which aims to cut the availability of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine by 25 per cent by 2005 and by 50 per cent by 2008. He said: "I have not found any evidence anywhere that cannabis is not harmful, is not carcinogenic or that its usage will not lead to harder drugs." He said that 13 per cent of people seeking treatment for addiction were there because of cannabis use. "A few years ago that figure was 10 per cent, so the number of people treated for cannabis addiction is growing," he said.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said he was "startled" at the New Zealand survey, which has also convinced Home Office ministers that using cannabis leads to using harder drugs.

Ms Mowlam, who hinted on Sunday that the law on cannabis might be relaxed because there was no causal link with hard drugs, is more sceptical of the New Zealand survey. She insisted yesterday she was not disagreeing with Mr Hellawell, but declined to use the term "gateway drug".

The Cabinet Office Minister said: "I think the evidence is not conclusive. We need to look at this research in more detail."

Further signs that Ms Mowlam favours a more liberal approach than Tony Blair and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, were evident when she said that cannabis could be legalised for medicinal purposes by the end of next year, after trials.

But she was forced to retract her comments after Downing Street insisted that such a move would not happen for at least four years. A spokesman for Number 10 said: "If any application [to the Medicines Control Agency] were made, we do not expect it before 2004. It is a really long process."

Ms Mowlam said later: "If that is what Downing Street is saying, it is right. I probably under-estimated the time it would take to get through the different phases which might be necessary."

Number 10's caution will disappoint campaigners who are pressing for early action to allow people suffering from multiple sclerosis and other illnesses to relieve their pain by taking prescriptions of cannabis in tablet form.

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