Government to reject drug law relaxation

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The Independent Online

The Government will reject a call for a shake-up of drug laws to be made by an independent inquiry tomorrow, which would reduce the penalties for possessing Ecstacy and cannabis.

The Police Foundation is expected to call for Ecstacy to be downgraded from a Class A drug such as heroin to a soft drug, reducing the maximum punishment for possessing it from six months in jail to a £200 fine. The inquiry, which enjoys semi-official status at the Home Office, will also suggest that possession of less than two grams of cannabis should become a civil offence and result only in warnings or small fines.

But Charles Clarke, the Home Office minister responsible for drugs policy, made clear yesterday that the Government would maintain its hardline approach to drug laws despite growing criticism that they are out of date.

He warned that any relaxation of the laws would send a message that "taking drugs is OK". He said: "If we send any signal whatsoever which suggests that taking more drugs is an acceptable way of proceeding, I think we will see consumption going up. There will be more tragedies, more sadness for individuals and bad effects for society as a whole."

Mr Clarke, who has admitted smoking cannabis two or three times during his late teens, told BBC's On the Record programme that the Government kept the drug laws under constant review and was guided by the advice of medical experts.

"The medical evidence on Ecstacy at the moment is absolutely clear," he said. "We have the tragedy of between 60 and 65 people having died as a result of taking Ecstacy in the last 10 years. To fly in the face of that would be really irresponsible for any government."

But Mr Clarke confirmed that the Government was ready "in principle" to allow cannabis to be used to relieve the pain of people suffering from multiple sclerosis and other illnesses, as The Independent disclosed last week. If trials now underway showed that a cannabis-based drug had the effects claimed for it, he said ministers would be prepared to consider amending the Misuse of Drugs Act on professional medical advice.

The prospects of such a change in the law were boosted when the Tories, who are demanding tougher penalties for drug dealers, signalled that they would also support cannabis being used for therapeutic purposes.

David Lidington, a Tory frontbench spokesman on home affairs, said that if there was a considered medical view that a cannabis-based drug could treat multiple sclerosis (MS) effectively, there would be a very clear argument for it to be used on prescription.

Mr Clarke admitted that the Government wanted to see the law on soft drugs, which is enforced differently by individual police forces, to be applied more consistently. He also said that more money was needed for drug rehabilitation, and an announcement was expected today.

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North, called for a Royal Commission on drugs and believed this would call for a relaxation of the law on cannabis. He said the judiciary and the police were already liberalising it in the way they handled cases where MS sufferers used the drug.