By FRANCESCA MOLD politcal reporter

The Salvation Army has softened its traditional hardline stance against drug use to accept that laws prohibiting cannabis need to be relaxed.

A spokesman for the religious and social organisation, Major Alastair Herring, said the Salvation Army believed it was inevitable there would be some liberalisation of cannabis laws in New Zealand.

He told a parliamentary select committee yesterday that the organisation, which had a long history of opposing the non-medical use of mind-altering substances, reluctantly acknowledged that cannabis usage was increasing and well accepted among some groups.

It was unlikely a prohibition policy could be sustained, he said.

Major Herring said the Salvation Army supported the continued prohibition of cannabis, but with civil penalties for any infringement. People with a small amount of cannabis - less than 5g of ready-to-use or three plants - should be fined and required to go through a drug education programme. Those under 18 should be given a formal caution. People caught with large amounts should still face criminal conviction.

"The Salvation Army believes this stance would give the signal that cannabis usage was not condoned, but would remove the threat of criminal conviction for otherwise law-abiding cannabis users," said Major Herring.

The Salvation Army provides drug, alcohol and gambling addiction treatment programmes throughout the country.

In 1993, 42 per cent of the organisation's clients admitted using cannabis. That figure had increased to almost 60 per cent in 1999.

By 1999, only 29 per cent of cannabis users were aged under 25 and almost 54 per cent under 40. "This indicates that cannabis usage has become a drug of choice for mature adults rather than just a phenomenon of youth," said the organisation.

The Salvation Army's submission was heard by the health select committee which is carrying out an inquiry into cannabis use.

The committee heard submissions from cannabis users yesterday, the National Society on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (NSAD) and the New Zealand Medical Association.

NSAD, which treats about 2200 people each year for drug and alcohol problems, said drug courts could be set up to deal with people caught using cannabis to find out if they needed treatment rather than being labelled as criminals.

NSAD chief executive Tim Harding said he did not support the decriminalisation of the drug but urged the committee to investigate non-punitive options, such as drug courts or diverting offenders to an assessment and treatment service.

Drug courts would work by offering drug users the opportunity to take part in treatment and rehabilitation programmes in exchange for criminal charge being dismissed or being given a lesser sentence.

New Zealand Medical Association chairman Dr John Adams said partial decriminalisation of cannabis would be acceptable, providing it could be shown no increased harm would result.

He said this might mean reducing or changing the penalties for small amounts of cannabis possession.

"We believe that drug addiction is more of a social and health problem than a criminal problem."

Dr Adams said cannabis had some probable benefits in some health areas, including pain relief and reducing muscle spasm. But there was no reliable evidence comparing cannabis with more usual treatments for those conditions.

Auckland psychiatrist Dr Allen Fraser last night told the committee he believed legalisation of cannabis was the best step to take.

But he thought New Zealand should follow in the steps of the Netherlands which while relaxing drug laws also made it illegal to advertise, promote or sell any more than 5 grams of cannabis at once.

Dr Fraser, who has 24 years experience as a psychiatrist, said there was no good scientific evidence that smoking cannabis led to the use of other drugs, such as cocaine or heroin.