Clarke Paves Way For U-Turn On Cannabis

Charles Clarke, the home secretary, was criticised yesterday from both sides of the debate on the misuse of drugs when he publicly indicated that he is considering restoring the class B status of cannabis in the light of medical evidence.

In what the tabloids labelled a "humiliating climbdown" from the decision of his predecessor, David Blunkett, to downgrade the widely used drug to class C, Mr Clarke used media interviews to signal his approval of an imminent report, which he has already read, from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Without divulging the report's contents Mr Clarke said he would accept one recommendation - to increase education about the dangerous effects of cannabis and its legal status, after Mr Blunkett's decision two years ago caused anti-drug partisans to claim that the drug had been '"decriminalised".

In an interview with the Times the home secretary confirmed what his officials have been saying, that new medical evidence has prompted a number of people to change their minds. "I'm very struck by the advocacy of a number of people who have been proposers of the reclassification of cannabis that they were wrong," he said. "I am also very worried about the most recent medical evidence on mental health. This is a very serious issue."

Under Mr Blunkett's reclassification, designed to free up police time to concentrate on dealers of more serious drugs, possession of cannabis became a non-arrestable offence in most cases. But it remains illegal and sentences range from up to two years' jail for possession and 14 years for dealing.

At the beginning of last year, the Home Office said the reclassification was paying dividends as cannabis arrests had fallen by 33% in the first five months after the move. It claimed that the change in the law represented a saving of almost 200,000 police-officer hours, giving police more time to target dealers of class A drugs. However, figures released by the Metropolitan police last year showed that the number of people arrested for dealing hard drugs in London had fallen steadily since 2001, despite the reclassification.

When asked yesterday if Mr Blunkett's move had helped at all, Mr Clarke conceded: "I think it gives a steer to the citizen on more serious drug consumption." His tone prompted a positive response from his Tory shadow, David Davis, who called for "appropriate action", especially with regard to mental health.

But the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mark Oaten, echoed the warning from Dame Ruth Runciman, a prominent expert in the field, in saying there should be no change of mind until the evidence for it is very strong. "The government should base drug classification on the facts and not tabloid pressure," Mr Oaten said. "The advisory body reports shortly and we should listen to their findings and not prejudge them. The case for treating drugs in different categories remains very strong and unless the advisory body make a strong argument to change this, the government should resist reclassification."

Dame Ruth, chairwoman of the NHS's Mental Health Trust and a veteran of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, also joined the debate to protest about ill-informed commentary. Mr Blunkett's original announcement had been "mishandled", she conceded on Radio 4, leading to ill-judged talk about "semi-legalised" or "decriminalised" cannabis. In what she called "the hierarchy of relative harm", no such drugs are harmless, she said.

What Mr Blunkett had done was "not radical at all, but sensible", she said, in reducing the maximum sentence from five years to two - still one of the most stringent regimes in Europe.

Latest Threads