Government ducks the cannabis debate

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The Independent Online

Cannabis is illegal. You can buy it, bake it and smoke it on the streets of south London without fear of prosecution. But the Government remains firmly opposed to official moves to legalise the drug.

After a week of intense manoeuvring from free-market Tories, Labour leftwingers and Liberal Democrats, Home Secretary David Blunkett remains unmoved. The Home Office insisted its position on cannabis has not changed and any "perceived changes" in policing or policy were consistent with the 10-year drugs strategy.

"We have a clear and consistent view about the links between drugs and crime and the effects of drugs," said a spokesman. "We are not planning to legalise the smoking of cannabis and we have no plans to legalise or decriminalise controlled substances."

The only current review of the law which prohibits cannabis use is that carried out by an independent inquiry ­ the first for 30 years ­ chaired by Viscountess Runciman. Viscountess Runciman was on the Government's Advisory Council on the misuse of drugs. But, after senior police officers complained they could no longer stretch resources to both cannabis and Class A drugs, she was commissioned to carry out the report.

The inquiry's recommendations on cannabis were the most far-reaching of any drugs which had been investigated, and involved substantial reduction in penalties for cannabis possession.

But the report stopped short of recommending legalisation, partly because Britain is tied in to three existing international agreements on drugs, which state that cannabis is a controlled drug and possession of it is a criminal offence.

The Government's response to the Runciman report was dismissive. Ministers said there would be neither a relaxation of drugs laws nor a debate into the issue.

However, New Labour has created a gulf between the letter of the law and the realities of policing cannabis offences.

Mr Blunkett has given his approval to a six-month pilot scheme in Lambeth, south London, where anyone found in possession will receive a verbal warning and have the drug confiscated instead of facing a caution or arrest.

Bringing political debate in line with the situation on the ground has gathered pace in the Conservative Party following the intervention of ex-deputy leader Peter Lilley. His call for legalisation has few backers among colleagues at Westminster. But, despite their reluctance to support legal changes, all contenders for the Tory party leadership have been forced to concede that there is a need for renewed debate into the issue.

In the Labour party, open discussion has been confined to the backbenches. Chris Mullin, former minister and ex-chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has called for MPs to look into "downgrading" cannabis. "Legalisation is traditionally a subject on which politicians fear to tread. Let me hasten to add that I am not yet persuaded but given that everything else has failed I wonder whether the time has come to contemplate the unthinkable." Other backbenchers, including Clive Soley and Paul Flynn, have also urged debate.

It is the Liberal Democrats that have taken the lead. Simon Hughes, the party's home affairs spokesman, said he would not be surprised if cannabis legalisation or decriminalisation was put down as an option.

"Everybody realises the current law is not working and by not working is actually undermining law in general," he said. The Liberal Democrats are the only political party to hold an official and public inquiry into drugs policy.

Legalisation would be the "light at the end of the tunnel", Viscountess Runciman believes. That could involve licensed dealers and outlets selling cannabis in the same way as alcohol and tobacco are now. Supply would have to be regulated to ensure profits were not ploughed back into trafficking hard drugs. And, across the country, police, parents and teachers would have to ensure that cannabis did not, as some fear, become a "gateway" to further drug use.

That is a long way off. By then, the nation's future lawyers, bankers and politicians could be calling for debate on the legal status of hard drugs.