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Friday, 6 July, 2001, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Q & A: The dope on cannabis

Cannabis should be legalised, says former Conservative Party deputy leader Peter Lilley. The laws relating to a drug used by 10% of UK adults are 30 years old and the subject of increasing debate.

What is cannabis?
Also known as hemp, the cannabis sativa plant is related to the nettle and the hop. As a drug it can be smoked or ingested in its leafy "herbal" form (marijuana) or as a resin (hashish) secreted from the leaves.

The drug causes the user to experience a "euphoric intoxication" (the so-called "high").

What are the current legal penalties associated with cannabis?
Cannabis is designated as "class B" drug by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Those found in possession of the drug could face a five-year prison term and an unlimited fine if the case reaches Crown Court.

Possession of marijuana is a crime
Though most sentences handed down tend to be less severe, the criminal record which accompanies a possession conviction can impact heavily on the individual's life.

People attempting to cultivate cannabis or found in possession of the drug "with intent to supply" could be confronted with a 14-year prison sentence.

How widespread is cannabis use?
One in ten British adults use the drug, according to European Union figures. Almost half of young people have tried cannabis by the time they leave school.

Given this level of usage (far higher than many of our European neighbours) it is not surprising that cannabis possession accounted for 78,000 of the 113,000 UK drug offences recorded in 1997.

What is decriminalisation?
While not endorsing use of the drug, decriminalisation usually means that individuals growing or possessing small amounts of cannabis for personal use escape prosecution or legal penalty.

In January, Belgium chose to take this path. The Belgian police will continue to prosecute dealers and large-scale growers.

Nor will Belgium tolerate the sale of le hasch in "coffee houses" - a practice its neighbour The Netherlands has allowed since 1976.

A police officer searches a man
Cannabis is a 'low priority' for police
Do we have de facto decriminalisation in the UK?
The Metropolitan Police have rejected claims that a trial project to stop arresting those found of cannabis in Lambeth, south London, is tantamount to legalisation.

Those stopped by officers receive a warning. With 77% of drugs offences in the borough involving cannabis, the new regime frees police from the time-consuming arrest procedure so they can tackle "those selling crack and all the associated crime problems that brings with it".

This move follows the lead of last year's Runciman inquiry which suggested downgrading cannabis to a "class C" drug - putting it on a par with many commonly prescribed painkillers and lessening sentences for those found in possession.

What is legalisation?
Such a move would affect suppliers as well as users, allowing the legal cultivation, sale and use of cannabis.

Legalisation would presumably see cannabis taxed and sold only to those above a certain age - in line with the current regulation of tobacco and alcohol.

Peter Lilley
Peter Lilley wants to see cannabis in the shops
Indeed, the free availability of these two drugs is one of the primary arguments for removing the distribution of cannabis from illegal operators, according to a 1998 House of Lords report.

"Most of our professional witnesses agree that the adverse effects of cannabis fully justify prohibition. The only argument on the other side is that cannabis is arguably less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco."

Who supports legalisation?
Former Tory cabinet minister Peter Lilley has some strange political bedfellows in his push for legalisation.

Former Labour frontbencher Mo Mowlam has argued that cannabis taxes could help fund the NHS.

Keith Hellawell, the drug tsar, supports legalised medicinal use of the drug. Such limited legalisation has been pioneered in places such as Berkeley, California - where voters said those with chronic health problems could grow 10 plants per year.

However, even this relaxation was put in jeopardy by a recent US Supreme Court ruling against any use of the drug.

Who is against legalisation?
Prime Minister Tony Blair has said would oppose any such move. While Ann Widdecombe, former Tory shadow home secretary, even suggested introducing stiffer fixed penalties for possession.

Despite the Lambeth experiment, the Met's commissioner Sir John Stevens is said to be happy with the current cannabis laws, even if enforcing them is a "low priority".

See also:

06 Jul 01 | UK Politics
'Legalise cannabis' says Lilley
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