Britain is being flooded with cannabis. So much more of the drug is available for sale on the street that its price has dropped to a record low.
Customs officials confirm that cannabis seizures at British ports have fallen dramatically while production overseas has remained constant. Latest official figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday show that while 80 tonnes of cannabis was seized in 12 months between 1997 and 1998, the figure had almost halved to 42 tonnes in 2000. The figures emerge as the Government's 10-year drugs strategy increasingly concentrates resources on tackling heroin and cocaine pushers. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, customs officers and the police have indicated they are sympathetic to a "softly, softly" approach on cannabis.
Matthew Atha, director of the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit said: "The market is flooded because police and customs have given up. There has been a dramatic fall in price since the early 90s." Moroccan resin is being sold for less than £400 for quarter of a kilo compared with £636 in 1997. The price is expected to fall even more. The price of a joint is now just over £1.
Home Office figures show that the amount of cannabis seized by police fell by 42 per cent in 1999, while the amount intercepted by Customs officers dropped by 32 per cent. Customs and Excise denied its officers were ignoring illegal cannabis imports, but said that its priority was on drugs which had a negative effect on society. "We are not turning a blind eye, but the priority has to be on class A drugs," a spokesman said. The Metropolitan Police have already announced that anyone found in possession in Lambeth, south London, will receive only a formal warning instead of being arrested and cautioned.
Government figures show that more adults use cannabis in Britain than in any other state in the EU and almost half of the nation's teenagers are thought to have smoked the drug by the time they leave school. But scientific studies have shown that smoking cannabis carries the same risks as tobacco, such as mouth and lung cancers and increased risk of heart attacks.
Drugs research charities are backing the Government's "pragmatic" approach to soft drugs. "Customs have increased their focus on the traffickers and increased the numbers of staff in countries producing class A drugs," said Roger Howard, chief executive of the charity Drugscope.
"This means less time spent on cannabis. Right through the drugs strategy there is a pragmatic realisation focusing on drugs which cause most harm to individuals."
However the International Cannabis Coalition, a campaign group, said that the price of cannabis was still too high and that legalisation was the only way forward. "When you buy off a dealer they are charging a 100 per cent mark-up," said Chris Sanders, the group's spokesman. "Before you know it your mate has made £10 off you. Prohibition means that it's still expensive."
The Home Office said police and customs shifting their focus on to drugs such as heroin and cocaine did not signal a move towards legalisation. "That is not an option," added a spokesman.
Mr Blunkett took personal charge of the national drugs strategy the minute he took over as Home Secretary. One of his first acts was to strip the drugs tsar Keith Hellawell of his full-time Whitehall job.
Mr Hellawell had been seen as ineffective in the war against drugs and had clashed with former Cabinet Office minister Mo Mowlam over her view that cannabis was not a "gateway drug".
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies