We will reverse 'absurd' reform of cannabis law, says Howard

A future Conservative government will reverse Labour's decision to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug, Michael Howard will announce today.

In an interview with The Independent, the Tory leader attacked the Government's move as "absurd" and "without logic", warning that it would send a signal to young people that cannabis was safe and legal even though it was not.

Mr Howard said the reclassification of cannabis from a Class B drug, which takes effect a week today, will create a "massive muddle in the middle" between the only two realistic policies - the current position and legalisation. "After thinking about this very carefully, we have come to the view that the Government's decision is completely misconceived and when we return to office, we will reclassify cannabis back to Class B," he said.

The former Home Secretary dismissed David Blunkett's argument that the change would give the police more time to focus on Class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. He said the police would still be weighed down with paperwork because people found repeatedly with cannabis still faced arrest. That would require records of each warning to be kept, he said.

Mr Howard accused Tony Blair of adding to the confusion during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday. Mr Blair stressed that the police would retain the power to arrest people for possession. However, the guidelines issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) say that there will be a "presumption against arrest".

Some experts have been worried by the increased availability of stronger forms of the drug such as skunk. The British Medical Association has warned that the new law will create confusion and lead many people to believe that cannabis is safe. Last night the BMA warned that doctors were "extremely concerned" that the reclassification ignored health risks such as heart disease, lung cancer and mental illness.

Diana Organ, the Labour MP for the Forest of Dean, challenged Mr Blair in the Commons. "Do you agree that the new classification of cannabis does lead to a mixed message for young people and drugs," she asked.

The Prime Minister replied: "I agree that it is important that we have a very clear message that possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence and whatever the reclassification, the police still have the power of arrest in relation to it. What is hoped is that the police will be able to concentrate on hard drugs - that is a huge problem, the link with heroin and crack addiction and crime is well known and it's important the police use all the efforts they can to bear down on it. But it does not alter the fact that possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence."

Today the Home Office will begin a £1m advertising campaign to explain the Government's decision, which will stress that cannabis will remain illegal. Caroline Flint, a Home Office minister, denied that the Government was sending mixed signals.

In his interview, Mr Howard played down growing speculation that he would abandon the policy of his predecessor Iain Duncan Smith to scrap university tuition fees after next week's critical Commons vote on the Higher Education Bill. Asked if tuition fees were likely play some part in the Tories' package, he replied: "No. I am very confident that we can arrive on a package for the future of university funding which does not rely on fees - at all."

The Tory leader served notice that, whatever the findings of the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly, which will report next week, he would continue to demand an independent judicial inquiry into the intelligence supplied to the Government about Iraqi weapons. Downing Street said yesterday that the issue had now been addressed by three investigations - the Commons foreign affairs committee, Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee and Lord Hutton. But Mr Howard said: "None of them is even approaching a substitute for something like the Franks inquiry which took place after the Falklands War."

An opinion poll by Mori, published last night, puts Labour on 37 per cent, the Tories on 35 per cent and Liberal Democrats on 27 per cent, wiping out Labour's bounce after the capture of Saddam Hussein last month. The number of people satisfied with Mr Howard has risen from 21 per cent to 30 per cent since last month.

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