'Ministers want softer stance on cannabis'

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Many members of the Cabinet are opposed to Tony Blair's hardline stance on soft drugs and are in favour of decriminalising cannabis use, a leading Labour peer said yesterday.

Many members of the Cabinet are opposed to Tony Blair's hardline stance on soft drugs and are in favour of decriminalising cannabis use, a leading Labour peer said yesterday.

Baroness Kennedy called for the Government to rethink its cannabis policy, as researchers predicted the drug could be legalised for medicinal use within two years.

According to a report for the Medical Research Council, the first phase of clinical trials of cannabis extracts has found that they carry "no safety concerns" and can act as powerful painkillers.

A new MORI opinion poll published yesterday found that 58 per cent of the public backed the decriminalisation of personal use of cannabis.

Baroness Kennedy, a civil rights barrister, said it was time the Home Secretary looked at relaxing the law on cannabis, to free police to deal with more serious offences.

"I really do think Jack Straw should review his position on this. I think it would take a lot to turn things around but there are a lot of people in the Cabinet who take the same view as myself," she told GMTV's Sunday programme. "Senior police officers and senior practitioners at the Bar all are of the same view: that actually the time has come to decriminalise.

"Too much time of the police is taken up with this kind of policing when there are far more serious issues, and in fact it's so prevalent, particularly amongst young people, that you would be criminalising a whole generation."

Yvette Cooper, the Public Health Minister, followed the lead of seven senior Tories when she revealed at the weekend that she had smoked cannabis in her youth.

But although Mr Blair is said to have given orders that his colleagues can confess to using the drug, no Cabinet minister other than Mo Mowlam has made a similar admission.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, said yesterday he had never smoked cannabis. "When I was at university and doing my postgraduate teaching certificate, I had enough challenges in life without getting stoned and therefore I didn't actually try it," he said.

The debate about decriminalisation intensified yesterday when a leaked report of the medical trials of cannabis extracts showed that it had no side-effects and could help people with conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

The study, conducted by the drug firm GM Pharmaceuticals and funded by the Medical Research Council, found that cannabis was "well tolerated" by volunteers and there were "no safety concerns".

Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, has pledged to legalise medicinal use of the drug if the trials showed a clear benefit to patients with specific conditions such as MS.

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