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Newshawk: Mister Farmer
Pubdate: Tue, 17 Oct 2000
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2000 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Address: 75 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER, England
Fax: +44-171-837 4530
Author: Alan Travis

A clear majority of British voters believe that using cannabis is no worse than smoking or drinking, according to the latest Guardian/ICM opinion poll. The survey also shows that the overwhelming majority also believe that smoking dope should not remain a criminal act in Britain. Some 43% even go so far as saying that its personal use should be legalised completely - a far higher proportion than previously recorded on Guardian/ICM opinion polls.

The findings confirm the view that a change has taken place in British public opinion about the future legal status of cannabis and that Ann Widdecombe was out of tune when she proposed replacing a policy of police cautions with a mandatory $100 fixed penalty fine. Only one in five voters believes that possession of cannabis should remain a criminal offence.

Opinion is most pro-cannabis among the 25 to 34 age group, some 50% of whom believe its personal use should be legalised. Two-thirds of this age group believe that smoking cannabis is no worse than smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol. This is higher than even the 65% of 18-24 year olds who subscribe to the same view. Indeed, the only age group to disagree with this proposition is the over 65s some 49% of whom were against. Even among these "grey voters" one in three agrees that cannabis is no worse than alcohol or tobacco.

Despite the fact that politicians in recent days have contrasted the experience of middle class youngsters at university with what goes on in "the real world" of inner city council estates, there is little difference in view across social class about cannabis law reform. Some 45% of DE voters - the unskilled and unemployed - think it should be legalised as do 44% of AB voters - the professional classes.

The poll does however show a clear divide between those who want to see the decriminalisation of cannabis but are not yet prepared to see it fully legalised. While 22% said they believed the personal use of cannabis should remain a criminal act, some 30% said the police should not make prosecution a priority and it should effectively be decriminalised. The issue has polarised opinion with only 4% of voters saying they had no opinion on the matter.

The findings of this poll, combined with weekend surveys also showing large majorities for decriminalisation, will put Tony Blair and Jack Straw under further pressure to reassess the government's policy on drugs.

The next opportunity will come when Home Office ministers give evidence to the Commons home affairs select committee on why they dismissed within hours of publication the Police Foundation report on cannabis published in March. The report, which included two chief constables among its membership, recommended that prison should no longer be used for cannabis possession.

Some 4,500 people were imprisoned last year after being convicted of cannabis charges.

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