Inquiry calls for softer line on hard drugs - but Blair says no

Jail terms for possessing heroin and cocaine should be slashed and people caught with small amounts of cannabis and ecstasy fined a few hundred pounds, says an influential report published yesterday.

The proposals to overhaul Britain's drug laws and drastically reduce penalties for possession of hard and soft drugs - which reignited the debate on decriminalisation - immediately caused a political storm.

The Liberal Democrats warned the Government not to make a "knee jerk" reaction, while Tony Blair rejected the proposals to downgrade penalties. The Home Office has, however, promised to consider the report's recommendations.

Among the most radical proposals made by the inquiry team, which includes two chief constables, is to cut maximum prison sentences for the possession of cocaine and heroin from seven years to one.

The report, by a committee set up by the independent Police Foundation, called on the Government to recognise that cannabis was "less harmful" than tobacco and alcohol and that the country's drug laws were outdated and failing to deter people using and trafficking narcotics.

The two-year inquiry called for cannabis to be downgraded from class B to C. Repeat possession would attract a maximum £500 fine, but in most cases would receive an informal warning or fixed penalty.

It also called for ecstasy and LSD to be reclassified as class B drugs instead of class A, a category that includes heroin and cocaine. Drug users caught with a small quantity of LSD or ecstasy would be punished by a maximum fine of £1,000, the committee recommends.

The report, Drugs and the Law, called for a new offence of drug dealing, which would allow the court to give a stiffer sentence for someone caught supplying drugs over a period of time. Additional prison terms should be given where organised crime, violence and children are involved.

But it urged lenient treatment for people growing cannabis plants for personal use and said the law should be changed immediately to allow people to smoke the drug for medicinal purposes.

Figures for 1997 show that 113,154 drug offenders were dealt with by the police, compared with 44,922 in 1990 and 12,532 in 1974. Half the offenders in 1997 were cautioned and 9 per cent were sent to jail.

Lady Runciman of Doxford, the committee's chairwoman, said there was no question of legalising drugs, but warned that the current penalties were far too harsh. The report states: "We have concluded that imprisonment is neither a proportionate response to the vast majority of possession offences nor an effective response."

The Home Office said some of the proposals were "worth exploring" but rejected the recommendations to reclassify LSD, cannabis and ecstasy.

Mr Blair's official spokesman, suggested that only some of the non-controversial proposals might be accepted.

"We don't support the recommendations for a reclassification," he said. "The Prime Minister believes that whilst it is right that the greatest harm is done by hard drugs, it would send the worst possible signal if we were to soften our laws in the way being suggested."

Keith Hellawell, the UK drugs co-ordinator, argued that the proposed penalties for cannabis use were nothing more than a "slap on the wrist".

But Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, argued: "Few people in Britain have confidence that present drugs laws work well. Knee-jerk defence of the present law is an unacceptable response. Only stupid governments say that the law on drugs cannot be improved."

Conservative drugs spokeswoman Ann Winterton urged the Government not to bow to pressure to liberalise the law.

Despite the committee containing two chief constables - John Hamilton from Fife police and Denis O'Connor of Surrey - the Association of Chief Police Officers said it did not believe there was a need to relax the drugs laws and expressed concern at many of the proposals.

The Police Superintendents' Association warned many of the measures would send out the wrong message.

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