Source: Eastern Daily Press, Norwich, UK

Pub Date: Thursday, 11 July 2002

Subj: UK: Cannabis in the melting pot

Author: Richard balls


Cited: Legalise Cannabis Alliance



Stroll along any street in Norwich or a large town in the county and the whiff of cannabis may waft your way. Go along to a nightclub, live music venue or certain pubs around the county, and the unmistakable aroma of a 'spliff' or 'joint' being smoked hangs heavy in the air.

Shops sell the seeds, although it is illegal to grow them, alternatives to cannabis are sold openly on Norwich market and through other outlets, and packets of cannabis resin and grass can be bought as easily as a newspaper or a pint of milk by those who use it - young or old.

The police have long turned a blind eye to personal use of 'dope', and those who are caught with a small lump of cannabis resin in their pocket are rarely charged. So will the Government's headline-making reclassification of cannabis really make any difference and is the real issue the freeing-up of police resources?

"The only difference is that if the police catch someone with cannabis, they will take it off them and warn them, but they won't have to arrest them, search their house, put in all the paperwork and go to court," said Alun Buffrey, the Norwich-based co-ordinator of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance.

"The user won't get a criminal record, but he will still lose his cannabis. Our concern is that in recognising people are going to use it, they should be protected from the real problems surrounding it."

From July next year, cannabis will be reclassified from a class B to class C drug. Home Secretary David Blunkett and his officials were at pains to stress yesterday that cannabis would remain illegal and that the police would be expected to act quickly to close down pot-smoking cafés where it was openly sold and used. But in most cases, police officers would simply "issue a warning and seize the drugs" where people were caught in possession.

In an effort to counter claims that he was "going soft on drugs", Mr Blunkett said the maximum sentence for dealing class C substances would be raised from five years to 14, even though cannabis was being downgraded. This means that dealing in other drugs such as anabolic steroids and certain anti-depressants would also carry a theoretical 14-year penalty.

Drugs 'tsar' Keith Hellawell handed in his resignation over the change in attitude towards cannabis which was "moving further towards decriminalis-ation than in any other country in the world".

Former minister Kate Hoey, whose Vauxhall constituency is in the Metropolitan police's "softly softly" experiment, said that rolling out that stance across the country would hit the most deprived areas.

"There are more drug dealers than ever, cannabis much more widely available. There is a mixed message being sent out," she said.

"On the one hand we are trying to say drugs are bad and at the same time cannabis is being seen as something that is just there, that people are smoking."

Mr Blunkett was adamant, however, that would not be the case. "It is important to remember that cannabis is a harmful substance that still requires strict controls to be maintained, hence its classification as a class C drug.

"I therefore have no intention of either decriminalising or legalising the production, supply or possession of cannabis."

Claims by some that Mr Blunkett has in effect decriminalised cannabis are not borne out by the reaction of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance. The fact that people will no longer be arrested for possession, except in certain circumstances, and may smoke the drug more openly is being seen as a "positive step" in terms of attitude, but the lobby group says it does not deal with many of the issues posing a threat to users.

It does not rule out the involvement of drug dealers selling this and other more dangerous drugs or the availability of low-quality and sometimes dangerous cannabis. Nor does it offer any protection for users in terms of safe places where they can smoke cannabis.

"Some people who buy it are concerned about the quality of it and about other substances being involved," said Mr Buffrey. "Some people end up buying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and if there is not much cannabis around maybe they will buy something else.

"I don't want people's choices controlled, but protected. If someone wants to take the dangerous drugs of alcohol or tobacco then they can go out and buy it without having to deal with criminals and use it in private without being bothered by the law.

"But if people choose to take drugs they end up in a world of crime and have poor quality, and in some cases poisonous, stuff, and sit on railway lines or a park, often risking their own and other people's lives."

The relaxation of the law on cannabis is a "sensible move" in the current climate and with the general acceptance of the usage of the 'weed' among young people, according to Penny McVeigh, chief executive of Norcas (Norfolk Community Alcohol Services).

The rigorous marketing by dealers of hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin meant that cannabis was being bypassed in many cases and it was "not helpful" to concentrate on the link between class A and class B drugs.

The changes announced by Mr Blunkett would allow police time and resources to be directed at these more dangerous drugs, but it was important that young people did not misread the change as a 'decriminalisation' of the drug as a complacency about its effects could lead to unprotected sex or dangerous driving.

"If the Government is going to reclassify cannabis it needs to think through how the more vulnerable people in society will receive it," she said.

"If young people see it as a green light, are they going to be given appropriate information about the risks and consequences of using cannabis and driving. If they do misunderstand and think 'it's all right now', then they will still be at risk."

Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, said: "It is clear we are on the road to decriminalisation and the Government should not shy away from that argument. The drugs tsar has resigned on the basis of this, so obviously this is a pathway to decriminalisation and allowing the police to concentrate on the real problem drugs we have in cities like Norwich.

"There have been several drug busts in my constituency where hard drugs are being peddled and I would rather the police did that than hassle a few people over a few joints.

"It won't make much difference to the police, but it will just give them the opportunity to ignore the hardliners who think the world will collapse around our ears if people smoke cannabis."

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said Mr Blunkett needed to explain whether he wanted police officers to arrest people openly selling cannabis or simply look away. If he was effectively decriminalising cannabis, did he still want young people to buy their supply from criminals?

"He needs to explain how it can be right to tell one set of people that it is OK to smoke cannabis, but to tell another set of people they may be put in prison for 10 years if they sell it," he said in House the Commons.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said the retention of the police power of arrest would give officers greater flexibility in dealing with incidents on the street.

The higher maximum penalty for trafficking and the consideration of an aggravated offence of supplying to a young person would also assist the police, the association said.

Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair said: "We felt it important that officers can maintain their credibility in dealing with members of the public in possession of cannabis and that their authority on the street is not undermined.

"Similarly, it was important to us that young people most at risk from drugs are adequately protected."

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