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UK heralds softer cannabis policy

Cannabis in the UK will be downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug
Cannabis in the UK will be downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug  

LONDON, England -- Cannabis is being reclassified by the British government as a less dangerous drug so that possession of small amounts is no longer an arrestable offence.

Home Secretary David Blunkett on Wednesday announced a planned downgrade of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C drug -- putting it in the same group as steroids and anti-depressants.

Blunkett denied the bill, which must yet be passed by both lower and upper houses of parliament, amounted to legalisation or decriminalisation.

However he said that in most cases of cannabis possession police will simply "issue a warning and seize the drugs."

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The Home Office stressed that Amsterdam-style cannabis cafes -- where the drug is sold and used openly -- remain illegal and the police would be expected to swoop swiftly to close them down.

A report published late last year showed cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in the European Union, with at least one in 10 adults in the 15-nation group having used it.

The proportion of adults who had used cannabis ranged from 10 percent in Finland to 20-25 percent in Britain, Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain.

Blunkett's move, which is designed to free up police resources which will be able to be deployed in the fight against harder drugs, has been criticised by the opposition Conservative Party and by drug counselling groups and charities.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said: "Supporters say police can go after the dealers in hard drugs, like heroin and crack cocaine, much more effectively if they didn't have to bother with comparatively minor offences on smaller soft drugs, like cannabis.

"But some of the drug charities are arguing that cannabis does have such an appeal to people of an addictive nature that it leads them on to harder drugs."

Drugs adviser quits

Hours before Blunkett spoke to the (lower) House of Commons, the government's drugs adviser Keith Hellawell resigned in protest at the proposal to reclassify cannabis.

Hellawell, a former senior police officer and the former so-called Drug Czar who was a part-time adviser to the government, said: "It is a softening of the law and it's giving the wrong message."

Blunkett countered allegations that he is going "soft on drugs" by announcing that maximum sentences for dealers of Class C drugs will be increased from five years to at least 10.

He also placed emphasis on drug treatment and reducing the harm drug users cause themselves, but would rule out separate proposals to downgrade Ecstasy from Class A to Class B.

But Hellawell said there was a link between cannabis and harder drugs, while experts recognised its dangers and more young people were taking it.

Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin told MPs the policy would send out "deeply confusing mixed messages" and would effectively "give control over cannabis to the drugs dealers with the police turning away."


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