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Government U-turn on cannabis grading expected

Home Secretary may ignore advice of experts on drug classification

OnMedica staff

Wednesday, 07 May 2008

The government looks set to ignore the advice of experts and announce moves to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug.

Home secretary Jacqui Smith is due to make a speech today in which she will announce plans for the reclassification of cannabis – against expert medical opinion.

The drug was reclassified from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004, in line with advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), an independent expert body that advises the government on drug related issues in the UK.

The ACMD published its final report on a review of cannabis today which calls for it to remain a Class C drug and for the UK’s four chief medical officers to develop a public health strategy on the dangers of using cannabis.

Ms Smith is thought to be taking this step because Prime Minister Gordon Brown is concerned about the current prevalence of the stronger “skunk” variety of cannabis.

Mr Brown indicated his desire for a change last week when he warned of the “more lethal quality” of much cannabis now available. As well as describing it as a gateway to other drugs, he said reclassification was necessary to “send a message to young people that it was unacceptable”.

When the drug's classification was changed to Class C, this reduced the maximum penalty for possession from five to two years' imprisonment.

When Ms Smith asked the ACMD to review cannabis classification in July of last year, she said there were public concerns about potential mental health effects on users.

However, at an evidence session held by the ACMD last month, they were told that the incidence of new schizophrenia cases reported to GPs had gone down between 1996 and 2005.

This evidence came from a study of the prevalence and annual incidence of diagnosed schizophrenia and psychoses among cohorts of over 900,000 patients attending 183 general practices in the UK during that period.

The study suggested a weak link between increased potency and use in the past two decades and mental health problems.

The report says that there is consistent evidence from various sources that cannabis use appears to have fallen in the past five years by around 20-25%.

ACMD chair Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, says in the report: “After a most careful scrutiny of the totality of the available evidence, the majority of the Council’s members consider – based on its harmfulness to individuals and society – that cannabis should remain a Class C substance.

“In providing this advice, however, the Council wishes to emphasise that the use of cannabis is a significant public health issue. Cannabis can unquestionably cause harm to individuals and society.

“The Council therefore advises that strategies designed to minimise its use and adverse effects must be predominantly public health ones. Criminal justice measures – irrespective of classification – will have only a limited effect on usage.”

A BMA spokesperson said: “At present, the BMA does not have policy on the legalisation of illicit drugs for non-medical or recreational use.”

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