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Britain to Relax Laws for Millions of Marijuana Users

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Britain to Relax Laws for Millions of Marijuana Users



Filed at 11:43 a.m. ET

LONDON (Reuters) - Britons, among the heaviest users of cannabis in Europe, will soon be able to smoke dope without fear of arrest after the government relaxed its laws on the drug in the face of a dramatic rise in its use.


Home Secretary David Blunkett told parliament Wednesday he would reclassify cannabis as a low risk, category C drug from July next year, making discreet possession of small amounts of it or smoking it in private a non-arrestable offence.

The downgrade will put cannabis in the same category as anabolic steroids and growth hormones.

But in a statement aimed directly at critics who accuse the government of ``going soft'' on drugs, Blunkett stressed that cannabis would remain illegal.

``We will not legalese or decriminalize any drug, nor do we envisage a time when this would be appropriate,'' he said. ``The message is clear. Drugs are dangerous. We will educate, persuade and where necessary direct young people away from their use.''

He rejected calls for the clubbers' drug ecstasy to be downgraded from the Class A highest risk category and slammed ecstasy, crack and heroin as ``the scourge of our time.''

``We are not persuaded that ecstasy should be downgraded. It can kill,'' he said.

Despite Blunkett's efforts to deliver a tough message, his move on cannabis prompted outrage on both sides of the political debate and sparked the resignation of the government's own so-called former ``Drugs Czar'' and part-time advisor.

Keith Hellawell said Wednesday he had left his job because he could not agree with Blunkett's decision on cannabis. ``It's moving further toward decriminalization than any other country in the world,'' he said.


Opposition Conservative home affairs spokesman Oliver Letwin told parliament the downgrade would send ``deeply confusing mixed messages'' to cannabis users and would ``give control over cannabis to the drugs dealers with the police turning away.''



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.

An estimated five million people in Britain regularly use cannabis and government data show its use has risen sharply over the past two decades.

But Blunkett was keen to focus the majority of his statement on so-called hard drugs like crack and heroin.

``Over the last 30 years, the huge increase in the use of drugs, particularly hard drugs, has caused untold damage to the health, life chances and wellbeing of individuals,'' he said.

The social and economic costs of drug abuse were ``well in excess of 10 billion pounds ($15.5 billion) a year,'' he added.

Britain tops the European Union league table on drug-related deaths and official estimates say it has around 250,000 so-called ``problematic'' drug abusers -- mainly heroin addicts.


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