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The BBC's Michael Buchanan in Brixton
"The experiment is being watched closely by forces across the country"
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Ann Widdecombe, Shadow Home Secretary
"I do not support de-criminalisation"
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Monday, 2 July, 2001, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Cannabis 'not being decriminalised'
Cannabis leaves in front of the Commons
Cannabis remains a controversial issue at Westminster
The government has denied that cannabis is being decriminalised.

This follows the introduction on Monday of a controversial pilot scheme which will allow people caught with small quantities of the drug to be let off with a warning.

Ministers rejected suggestions in the Commons that the decision to hold a six month trial in Lambeth, south London, was a move towards legalising cannabis.

Peter Lilley
Peter Lilley attacked the cannabis scheme
But former Tory social security secretary Peter Lilley denounced the move - telling MPs it would bring the police, the law and parliament into disrepute.

Home Office Minister John Denham said the decision to concentrate on fighting "hard drugs" rather than cannabis was an issue of targeting police resources more effectively.

"But it is not the case to say that cannabis has been decriminalised or that the law has been changed," he said.

Shadow home secretary, Ann Widdecombe, said the government should focus on boosting police numbers.

There are too few policemen with too much work to do

Ann Widdecombe
But the move was welcomed as "sensible" by Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes.

Offenders will get an on-the-spot warning and the cannabis will be confiscated, taking up 10 minutes of an officer's time, instead of 10 hours to process an arrest.

During questions in the Commons Home Office Minister John Denham insisted that the move did not amount to decriminalisation.

Earlier Miss Widdecombe told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that a lack of policemen meant that they had "too much work to do to cover all crime as thoroughly as they would like".

Policing priorities

"That is the situation we should be tackling, not simply allowing the police to decide what is crime and what isn't."

The things that most concern [local people] are crack cocaine, heroin and street robbery

Commander Brian Paddick
Simon Hughes said: "Prosecuting people in possession of soft drugs for their own use, with all the bureaucracy that is involved, is simply not the best use of police time and resources."

That was a sentiment echoed by Commander Brian Paddick, who is running the initiative.

He said: "Local people have said that the things that most concern them are crack cocaine, heroin and street robbery, so I want to focus scarce police resources on those priorities."

He said officers had told him, unofficially, that in some cases offences involving cannabis were being ignored.

"This policy gives a formal way of putting into practice what has been happening maybe on the streets for some time."

Record low price

A report from Europe has already shown that more adults in Britain use cannabis than anywhere in the European Union.

And independent research by the Drug Monitoring Unit has shown that the price of cannabis in the UK is reaching a record low.

The amount of cannabis seized has dropped by around half over the past two years, but Customs officials deny they are turning a blind eye to cannabis imports.

Like the home secretary, they say the priority is to seize Class A drugs.

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See also:

30 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Blunkett targets young offenders
01 Jul 01 | UK
Cannabis price plummets
31 May 01 | UK
'Pain drove me to pot'
11 Oct 00 | UK
UK tops drugs survey
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