The Guardian (London, England), March 22, 2005
If ever a government had an early warning of one front it needs to defend in this election campaign, it is Labour's downgrading of cannabis. On the eve of ministers reclassifying cannabis from category B to the less harmful category C about 14 months ago, the ever-opportunistic Michael Howard declared a Conservative government would reverse it. He condemned the government's drugs strategy as "absurd", which serious policy-makers thought "shameless". Now, 14 months on, ministers are behaving "absurdly", not by referring new evidence about the drug to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but with their failure to set out the robust reasons behind their decision last year.
Charles Clarke, the home secretary, asked the advisory council to say whether it would change their mind as a result of "emerging evidence" of a link between cannabis consumption and deteriorating mental health. It is unlikely that they will. The advisory council - along with the Royal College of Psychiatrists' working party and a Police Foundation's independent committee of inquiry - were all aware of the risks that cannabis posed to people vulnerable to mental illness when they made their recommendations to reclassify.
But certainly the two studies specifically mentioned by Mr Clarke should be referred to the council. The New Zealand study, according to Mr Clarke, "considered how regular cannabis use increased the risk of developing psychotic symptoms later in life". The conclusion of the Dutch study, published in the British Medical Journal three months ago, repeats findings of earlier research that "cannabis use moderately increases the risks of psychotic symptoms in young people but has a much stronger effect in those with evidence of predisposition for psychosis".
Much fuss has been aired in the red-top papers about these two studies, but with few quotes from the researchers. Yet the professor who led the New Zealand project told the New Zealand Herald: "These are not huge increases in risk and nor should they be, because cannabis is by no means the only thing that will determine if you suffer these symptoms." Professor Jim van Os, one of the authors of the Dutch study, was even more robust. He told the Guardian that the fact that cannabis could trigger psychosis in a small minority of people was a good reason to legalise it, not ban it. This would allow governments to promote advice and information and control more dangerous forms like skunk. Packets could carry how much THC, the most dangerous compound, the drug contained, along with how much CBD, the compound believed to provide beneficial effects.
Dame Ruth Runciman, who chaired the influential Police Foundation study, rightly reminded ministers that even with its downgrading, cannabis still carried one of the the highest penalties compared with the rest of Europe: up to two years in prison for possession and 14 years for trafficking. She went on: "A law which is credible to young people is more valuable to education than a law palpably at odds with their experience."
What was missing from the minister's response was a public reminder of why the drug was reclassified. It followed expert advice from professionals - medics, pharmacologists, police officers - not red-top papers. It freed a wide swathe of police officers to pursue serious drug barons, rather than trivial offenders. No wonder polls show 60% believe the drug should be decriminalised. If ministers needed to add a political message, they could have asked Mr Howard why he wanted to wage war on 50% of young people, ensure tens of thousands of them be given criminal records and some prison sentences, for an activity that more than 2 million of them engage in quite safely during the year.
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