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Brown Plans To Abandon Softer Laws On Cannabis

The Independent, July 19, 2007

by Nigel Morris, Home Affairs Correspondent

Laws on cannabis are to be toughened by Gordon Brown amid claims that stronger strains of the drug were causing an increase in mental illness.

In a further break with the Blair years, the new Prime Minister paved the way to reversing the controversial decision to make possession of a cannabis a largely non-arrestable offence.

The drug was downgraded from a class B to class C substance three years ago to enable police to focus their attention on more damaging class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Mr Brown told MPs that the legal status of cannabis would be re-examined by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, and Whitehall sources later confirmed that the review was almost certain to result in its reclassification as a class B drug.

The planned policy reverse, which was condemned by drugs charities as a reaction to sensationalist media coverage of cannabis use, is the latest in a series of moves by Mr Brown to distance himself from his predecessor.

He has scrapped "super-casinos", reformed the student grant system, announced a review of the health service and ditched Tony Blair's rhetoric on the "war on terror".

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) will be asked to look at suggestions that highly potent forms of cannabis, such as "skunk", are becoming more widespread with damaging effects on health.

Recent figures disclosed that hospital admissions linked to cannabis had increased by 63 per cent in the past five years with some users displaying symptoms of schizophrenia and acute paranoia.

The ACMD is expected to report by the end of the year, although the final decision over cannabis legislation will be taken by the Government.

Ms Smith will also next week set out a new strategy for combating drugs use, including improving treatment and education. Cannabis was downgraded in January 2004 by David Blunkett, then the home secretary, who argued that the switch would make drug laws more credible.

Someone caught with a class C substance can in theory be jailed, but in practice they are likely to be let off with a verbal warning. Possession of class B drugs, which include amphetamines and barbiturates, can result in a maximum prison sentence of five years.

The legal situation was reviewed only last year by Charles Clarke, then the Home Secretary, who concluded that cannabis should remain in class C alongside anabolic steroids and some anti-depressants.

But Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope, said the "fairly hysterical coverage in some sections of the media" was a factor in yesterday's announcement. He said: "Repeated movements on classification will only serve to further confuse young people, and increase the political point-scoring, at a time when cannabis use is falling among young people and adults alike." A spokesman for Transform Drug Policy Foundation said: "This announcement is all about political posturing and has nothing to do with science.

"It follows in the wake of a series of all-too-familiar cannabis health panics, which have been hyped up by certain newspapers, and more recently by the Tory party."

Mr Blunkett said he was "quite relaxed" about another review of his decision to downgrade the drug. But he added: "It is worth reflecting that cannabis use among young people has fallen."

* The Prime Minister was thrown on the defensive over the controversial scheme to release prisoners 18 days early to ease the jail overcrowding crisis.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, said some had been released early against the advice of prison and probation staff while others had gone on to commit violent offences. Mr Brown told MPs he regretted any offences committed by prisoners freed early and agreed to investigate the claim that advice had been overruled.

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