Home Secretary David Blunkett said reclassifying marijuana, or cannabis, as a "Class C drug" putting it in the same category as anabolic steroids would not be the same as decriminalization or legalization. However, such a change means that those possessing marijuana would not be subject to arrest.
"Cannabis would remain a controlled drug and using it a criminal offense ... but it would make clearer the distinction between cannabis and Class A drugs like heroin and cocaine," Blunkett told a House of Commons committee meeting.
"It is time for an honest and common sense approach focusing effectively on drugs that cause most harm," he added.
Blunkett's statement comes amid an intensifying political debate about marijuana. Senior figures from all three major political parties have now urged a review of cannabis laws.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens called the proposal a reflection of changing police and public attitudes.
"This is a clear signal that (marijuana possession) is not such a high priority as it was perceived to be," Stevens said. "There are lots of other more high profile issues for police officers to tackle."
A leading researcher in the potential use of marijuana for medical treatment praised the proposal.
Dr. John Zajicek, who is doing clinical trials with cannabis to treat multiple sclerosis, said a loosening of the law could aid MS sufferers.
"If we are to provide the evidence that the drug is useful in alleviating pain in MS then there has to be a way of getting the drug to those patients," he said.
Police say seven out of 10 drug arrests are for marijuana and that processing a marijuana-related arrest creates several hours of police paperwork and usually ends with a small fine.
Changing the marijuana laws would require approval by Parliament. The proposal will first be discussed with senior police officers and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a Home Office spokesman said. A final decision is expected in the spring.
Marijuana is currently a Class B drug, and possession carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
Simple possession of a Class C drug carries a maximum sentence of two years, and British law states that only offenses punishable with at least five years imprisonment are subject to arrest. In lesser offenses, a police officer can only issue a warning or a court summons.
Possession with intent to supply or supplying Class C drugs would still be an arrestable offense.
One south London borough is effectively implementing the home secretary's proposal. Since July, Lambeth police have been giving only a verbal warning to anyone caught with a small amount of marijuana.
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