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Public relaxed on the use of cannabis

By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor, The Daily Telegraph, 14th August 2006

Most people would be happy to see the personal use of cannabis decriminalised or penalties for possession lowered to the status of a parking fine, says one of the largest opinion surveys conducted on the issue.

However, the majority of the public is adamantly against any lessening of the restrictions on heroin or crack cocaine, drawing a clear distinction between so-called hard and soft drugs.

Three quarters of people think that the sale and possession of hard drugs should remain a serious criminal offence but only a third think the same of soft drugs.

The YouGov survey, carried out for the The Daily Telegraph and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), indicates a pragmatic attitude towards drugs, legal and illegal, with many people acknowledging that the damage caused by alcohol and tobacco often outweighs that from the occasional use of soft drugs.

The findings follow a report this month from the Commons science and technology committee suggesting that the drugs classification system, which dates from 1971, should be scrapped and replaced by a scale that rates substances on the basis of health and social risks.

The committee proposed a scale that would rate substances purely on that basis, removing the link with potential punishments under the law.

The scale would include legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, to give "a better sense of the relative harm involved" in the consumption of drugs.

The Government is discussing new policies as part of a review of its 10-year drugs strategy, which runs out in 2008.

There is growing pressure on ministers to consider a new approach based on a "rational" ranking of the harm that various substances cause.

The YouGov poll suggests that the public would be receptive to such a move.

Its findings will help to underpin the work of the RSA's commission on illegal drugs, communities and public policy, which has spent more than a year looking at the issue and will report in December.

Asked which substances caused most harm, respondents placed tobacco and alcohol well ahead of cannabis and only just behind heroin.

That reflects the thinking of scientists who have drawn up a new scale based on risk which they say should replace the A, B and C rankings introduced in the Misuse of Drugs Act 35 years ago.

On this template, alcohol would be a borderline Class A/B drug because it is involved in more than half of all visits to accident and emergency departments and orthopaedic admissions. It often leads to violence and is a frequent cause of car accidents.

YouGov also confirms a sizeable age gap in attitudes to drugs: people born after 1960 are far more likely to regard their use as inevitable, whether or not they approve.

Government policy in recent years has been moving towards a tougher crackdown on hard drugs while encouraging the police to focus less, if at all, on the personal use of soft drugs such as cannabis.

That approach was behind the reclassification of cannabis and was reinforced by a recently published internal Whitehall study suggesting that most acquisitive crimes were committed by an estimated 280,000 high harm drug-users to support their cocaine and heroin habits. It found that the approach adopted over the past decade had failed to reduce hard drug use and the crime that accompanied it.

The study also said that more than three million people used illicit drugs every year and compared the 749 deaths annually from heroin and methadone with the 6,000 deaths from alcohol abuse and 100,000 from tobacco.

It also showed that about 700 annual hospital admissions on mental health grounds resulted from the use of cannabis, compared with 500 for heroin users.

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