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    Wednesday, May 7, 2008

    Reuters - Cannabis classification to be tightened

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    Cannabis classification to be tightened

    Wednesday, May 07, 2008 6:11PM UTC

    By Tim Castle

    LONDON (Reuters) - Cannabis will be raised to a class B drug with a maximum five year jail term for users, the government said on Wednesday, rejecting a recommendation from its own drugs advisers to leave the classification unchanged.

    Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said the decision had been made because of concern, particularly amongst the public, about the "alarming" use of skunk, a stronger strain of the narcotic which now dominates the market.

    "I want it to be clearly understood that this powerful form of cannabis is an illegal and harmful drug," Smith told parliament, vowing the change would be backed by crackdowns on cannabis farms.

    "There is a compelling case for us to act now, rather than risk the future health of young people."

    Her announcement followed the publication of a report by the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) which said there was insufficient evidence to regrade cannabis to the more serious class B.

    "After careful scrutiny of the available evidence, the ACMD considers -- based on its harmfulness to individuals and society -- that cannabis should remain a class C substance," said Chairman Michael Rawlins.

    Prime Minster Gordon Brown had been widely expected to ignore the advice because of fears over the mental health effects of skunk.

    Last month Brown said he wanted to send a strong message that use of the drug was "unacceptable".

    Cannabis was downgraded to Class C -- which includes substances such as anabolic steroids -- on the ACMD's advice in January 2004.

    That meant possession of the drug was treated largely as a non-arrestable offence.

    Under the tighter class B rules, which put cannabis on a par with amphetamines and barbiturates, users face up to five years' jail and suppliers a maximum of 14 years.

    Proponents of a tougher drugs policy said its Class C status ignored cannabis's potential health impacts.

    Mental health criminal lawyer Grahame Stowe, a partner at law firm Grahame Stowe Bateson, said reclassification of cannabis is long overdue.

    "Those of us who work in the criminal and mental health spheres of the legal industry are acutely aware of the danger cannabis poses and the long-term damage it causes," the lawyer, who has 35 years' experience, said in a statement.

    "Reclassification is the only way to address this problem and make concrete progress on tackling cannabis use."

    The ACMD was asked by Brown shortly after he took office last June to review the drug's classification and it reported to ministers last week.

    Going against the council's advice is controversial given it plays a major role in drugs policy, but Brown was also likely come under fire from those who said drugs policy was too soft if he decided to keep the narcotic in Class C.

    Wednesday's move was welcomed by police and the Conservative party, although it condemned the government for the original decision to downgrade the drug, saying it had increased the size of the cannabis market.

    (Additional reporting by Michael Holden and Katherine Baldwin; Editing by Steve Addison)

    Reuters - BT launches BlackBerry-style device with broadband

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    BT launches BlackBerry-style device with broadband

    Wednesday, May 07, 2008 1:27PM UTC

    LONDON (Reuters) - BT Group signaled its return to the mobile market on Wednesday by launching a BlackBerry-style smart-phone as part of its broadband deal for users to surf the Web and make calls when not at home.

    "Communications services are converging, and it is clear that customers want consistent access to the things that matter not only at home, but in the palm of their hands wherever they are," said Consumer managing director John Petter.

    BT, a former monopoly and Britain's dominant fixed-line operator, is among the few large telecom groups in Europe not to own a mobile network after it demerged its mobile operation in 2001.

    Consumers will have a choice of two smart phones from Taiwan-based High Tech Computer Corp (HTC) which will connect to the Internet at broadband speeds and provide cheaper calls when in a WiFi hotspot.

    The BlackBerry email device was originally popular with business executives but it is increasingly attracting a wider consumer market. Consumers are also moving to mobile networks and away from landlines to make their calls.

    (Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Louise Ireland)

    Reuters - Clinton gives herself loan, vows to fight on

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    Clinton gives herself loan, vows to fight on

    Wednesday, May 07, 2008 9:19PM UTC

    By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama took a commanding lead in the Democratic presidential race on Wednesday, but Hillary Clinton said she would fight on after loaning her campaign $6.4 million to keep it alive.

    Obama's big win in North Carolina and Clinton's slim victory in Indiana widened his advantage in their battle for the right to face Republican John McCain in the November presidential election with just six contests remaining.

    The results left the cash-strapped Clinton campaign with few opportunities to halt Obama's march to the nomination. But the New York senator remained defiant.

    "I'm staying in this race until there is a nominee," Clinton told reporters after a campaign rally in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, which holds the next contest on Tuesday.

    Clinton dipped into her personal fortune again in the past month to try to keep pace with Obama, putting $5 million into her campaign chest on April 11 and $1.4 million over the past week, aides said. It was the second time she used her own money to fund her White House bid.

    "It's a sign of my commitment to this campaign," Clinton said of the loans.

    She said she would fight on to contests in West Virginia, and in Oregon and Kentucky on May 20, but Obama aides said he was closing in on the nomination.

    "We believe we are going to be the nominee of this party," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters. He said the campaign would begin to look ahead when possible to a general election campaign against McCain.

    "We obviously still have a lot of votes to fight for," he said. "We're going to do the things we can in our off-hours to be ready."

    Obama's 14-point victory in North Carolina was a dramatic rebound from a difficult campaign stretch that began last month with a big loss in Pennsylvania and was prolonged by the controversy over racially charged comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

    With just 217 delegates at stake in the final six contests, Clinton has no realistic chance to overtake Obama's lead in pledged delegates who will help pick the nominee at the August convention. It is also almost impossible for her to catch him in popular votes won in the state-by-state battle for the nomination that began in January.

    An MSNBC count showed Tuesday's results expanded the Illinois senator's delegate edge by 12. He has 1,844 delegates to Clinton's 1,695 -- leaving him about 200 short of the 2,025 needed to clinch the nomination.

    SUPERDELEGATES TO WEIGH IN?

    But neither can win without help from superdelegates -- nearly 800 party insiders and officials who are free to back any candidate. Tuesday's results undermined Clinton's argument that she has the best chance to beat McCain in November.

    More than 250 superdelegates remain uncommitted. If the majority begin to move toward Obama they could quickly settle the race. Some Obama backers hoped the movement starts soon.

    "It's now time for the superdelegates to begin bringing this process to a close," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, an Obama supporter.

    Four superdelegates endorsed Obama on Wednesday, including George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who switched his allegiance from Clinton to Obama.

    "It's time for us to unite and get ready for the fall campaign," he told Reuters from his South Dakota home. He said he informed Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton.

    "He just wanted me to know that he thinks that Hillary has made a great race and it's up to her to decide when she leaves. And I don't argue with that," McGovern said.

    Another superdelegate, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, endorsed Clinton. She was scheduled to meet on Wednesday with other superdelegates on Capitol Hill before an evening fundraiser in Washington.

    Obama, 46, took the day off at home in Chicago.

    Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an Obama supporter, said Clinton should not be rushed out of the race.

    "I think it would be inappropriate, awkward and wrong for any of us to tell Sen. Clinton when it is time for the race to be over," she said.

    Clinton won Indiana by fewer than 23,000 votes out of more than 1.25 million cast, taking the state by 51 percent to 49 percent. She had hoped to win by a bigger margin.

    At her victory rally on Tuesday in Indianapolis, the 60-year-old former first lady asked for campaign donations.

    Clinton still hopes to find a way to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, where she won contests in January that are not recognized by the national party because of a dispute over their timing.

    (Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Thomas Ferraro; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

    (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:/blogs.reuters.com/trail08/ )

    CNN - U.S. envoy: Myanmar deaths may top 100,000

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    U.S. envoy: Myanmar deaths may top 100,000


    The death toll from the cyclone that ravaged the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar may exceed 100,000, the senior U.S. diplomat in the military-ruled country said Wednesday.

    "The information we are receiving indicates over 100,000 deaths," said the U.S. charge d'affaires in Yangon, Shari Villarosa.

    The U.S. figure is almost five times the 22,000 the Myanmar government has estimated.

    The U.S. estimate is based on data from an international non-governmental organization, Villarosa said without naming the group. She called the situation in Myanmar "more and more horrendous."

    "I think most of the damage was caused by these 12-foot storm surges," she said.

    Villarosa also said that about 95 percent of the buildings in the delta region were destroyed when Cyclone Nargis battered the area late Friday into Saturday.

    Based on the same data, 70,000 people are missing in the Irrawaddy Delta, which has a population of nearly 6 million people, Villarosa said. The official Myanmar government figure for the missing is 41,000.

    Villarosa said, "I can only assume that the longer the delay, the more victims that are created."

    Little aid has reached the area since Nargis hit, and on Wednesday, crowds of hungry survivors stormed reopened shops in the devastated Irrawaddy delta.

    The United Nations urged the military junta to grant visas to international relief workers amid estimates of 1 million homeless.

    A United Nations official said that nearly 2,000 square miles (5,000 square km) of the hard-hit delta are still underwater.

    Charity workers have gathered at Myanmar's embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, with vehicles, emergency food supplies and medicine, waiting for their visa requests to be approved.

    "We need this to move much faster," said John Holmes, U.N. humanitarian chief, after reading a statement from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

    There were reports of "civil unrest" in the worst-hit areas where people are scrambling for limited food supplies, a U.N. spokesman said.

    In the flood-soaked Irrawaddy delta townships, U.N. assessment teams observed "large crowds gathering around shops -- the few that were open -- literally fighting over the chance to buy what food was available," World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said Wednesday from Bangkok.

    There were also also reports of price gouging in urban areas around Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and former capital.

    "There were long lines of people trying to buy what food was available, even at those higher prices," Risley said.

    The delta, Myanmar's rice-growing heartland, has been devastated by Cyclone Nargis, threatening long-term food shortages for survivors, experts said.

    "We can't delay on this; this is a huge disaster, and the longer [Myanmar] waits, the worse it's going to become," International Rescue Committee spokesman Gregory Beck said.

    The Rome, Italy-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that five states hit hardest by Saturday's cyclone produce 65 percent of the country's rice, The Associated Press reported.

    "There is likely going to be incredible shortages in the next 18 to 24 months," Sean Turnell, an economist specializing in Myanmar at Australia's Macquarie University, told AP.

    Holmes said 24 countries had pledged financial support, with a total of $30 million expected in aid.

    The WFP, which has started feeding the estimated million homeless, said there were immediate concerns about salvaging harvested rice in the flooded Irrawaddy delta.

    The cyclone battered the country with winds of 240 kph (150 mph) and 3.5-meter (11.48 feet) storm surges.

    Damage was also extensive in the country's largest city, Yangon. Much of the former capital is without power and littered with debris and fallen trees.

    CNN's Dan Rivers, the first Western journalist into the devastated town of Bogalay, said Wednesday that it was difficult to find the words to describe the level of destruction.

    "Ninety percent of the houses have been flattened. ... The help that these people are getting seems to be pretty much nonexistent, from what we've seen."

    He saw members of Myanmar's army clearing roads but handing out little food or medicine.

    "There has been scant help, really. I think we saw one or two Red Cross vehicles in the entire time we were driving," Rivers said of his travels over a 12-hour period.

    Hundreds of World Vision staff are in Myanmar with limited supplies, according to spokesman James East.

    Tons of supplies have been readied in Dubai and can be brought in quickly once clearance is given.

    "Even when aid comes in, it's going to be a logistical nightmare to get it out to the remote delta region," East said.

    However, Yangon is almost back to normal, World Vision health adviser Dr. Kyi Minn said. Roads have been cleared of debris, and electricity and potable water are available.

    The Myanmar Red Cross has been handing out relief supplies, such as drinking water, plastic sheeting, clothing, insecticide-treated bed nets to help prevent malaria, and kitchen items, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

    The United States has pledged $3.25 million and offered to send Navy ships to the region to help relief efforts -- if Myanmar's government agrees.

    The U.S. military has flown six cargo helicopters onto a Thai airbase as Washington awaits permission to go into the south Asian country, two senior military officials told CNN's Barbara Starr.

    Other countries and world bodies including Britain, Japan, the European Union, China, India, Thailand, Australia, Canada and Bangladesh have also pitched in.

    Based on a satellite map made available by the U.N., the storm's damage was concentrated over a 30,000-square-kilometer area along the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Martaban coastlines, home to nearly a quarter of Myanmar's 57 million people.

    Reuters - "Grand Theft Auto" first week sales top $500 million

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    "Grand Theft Auto" first week sales top $500 million

    Wednesday, May 07, 2008 12:15PM UTC

    NEW YORK (Reuters) - Take-Two Interactive Software Inc <TTWO.O> scored more than $500 million in global sales of criminal action game "Grand Theft Auto 4" in its first week, marking what it said on Wednesday is one of the most lucrative entertainment events in history.

    The interactive software publisher, which is facing a takeover offer from rival Electronic Arts Inc <ERTS.O>, said it sold about 3.6 million units globally at its debut on April 29, and some 6 million units in total in the week.

    Retail chains such as GameStop Corp <GME.N> and Best Buy Co Inc <BBY.N> took advance orders for weeks of GTA 4, which has been lavished with near-universal accolades.

    The first-week sales of Grand Theft Auto, a game hailed as a brutal and satirical masterpiece equal to films like "The Godfather," beat the $400 million scored by last year's "Halo 3" from Microsoft Corp <MSFT.O>.

    "Grand Theft Auto IV's first week performance represents the largest launch in the history of interactive entertainment, and we believe these retail sales levels surpass any movie or music launch to date," said Strauss Zelnick, chairman of Take-Two, in a statement.

    Made by Take-Two's Rockstar studio, the game casts players as an Eastern European immigrant who runs drugs, shoots cops and beats up prostitutes after falling in with a crime syndicate -- stuff that has drawn fire from family groups and politicians.

    Take-Two shares closed on Tuesday at $26.35 on Nasdaq, higher than EA's offer price of $25.74 per share. Take-Two management has rejected EA's offer as too low and has suggested that it might start discussions once the game was launched.

    (Reporting by Franklin Paul; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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