Cannabis less risky than alcohol, says official report

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The Government's drug advisers reported yesterday that cannabis was less addictive than either tobacco or alcohol, a significant step towards the decriminalisation of Britain's most widely used illicit substance.

The Government's drug advisers reported yesterday that cannabis was less addictive than either tobacco or alcohol, a significant step towards the decriminalisation of Britain's most widely used illicit substance.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs backed an earlier proposal by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, that cannabis should be downgraded to a Class C drug, which in effect makes its possession a non-arrestable offence.

The council said in its report: "Regular heavy use of cannabis can result in dependence, but its dependence potential is substantially less than that of Class B drugs such as amphetamine or, indeed, that of tobacco or alcohol."The council also undermined claims by anti-drugs campaigners that cannabis was a dangerous "gateway" drug that led users to experiment with harder and more addictive illicit substances.

"It is not possible to state, with certainty, whether or not cannabis use predisposes users to dependence on Class A drugs such as heroin or crack cocaine," its report said. "Nevertheless the risks (if any) are small, and less than those associated with the use of tobacco or alcohol."

Backing the first relaxation of Britain's drug laws in 30 years, the council said: "The high use of cannabis is not associated with major health problems for the individual or society."

The council pointed out that it was not claiming that cannabis use was harmless; it posed "significant dangers" for people with disorders of the heart and circulation, and for those with mental health problems such as schizophrenia.

But it said such people were "at much more significant risk" from amphetamines, which are also categorised as Class B. The council said: "The continuing juxtaposition of cannabis with these more harmful Class B drugs erroneously (and dangerously) suggests that their harmful effects are equivalent."

The reclassification of cannabis, however, will not take place immediately. The Government will postpone its final decision until after consideration of the findings of a full-scale inquiry into drugs that has been carried out by the House of Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee.

Ministers, who have not yet received the committee's report, will also examine evaluation reports of a pilot project in Lambeth, south London, where police have already adopted a policy of not arresting people for possession of small amounts of cannabis.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Party leader, said the proposals to relax the cannabis laws had not been well thought out.

"Anybody who knows about the difficulties in communities – about young people who are trying drugs, and moving on to harder drugs – knows that it is far more complex than that," he said.

But Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs, called on the Government to relax the laws even further. "If the Government accepts the advisory council's recommendation, it should also decide that it is not in the public interest to prosecute people for small-scale possession of cannabis for personal use," he said.

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