Cannabis report renews pressure on ministers to reform drug laws report

Click to follow
Indy Politics

The finding by the Government's drugs advisory body that cannabis is less addictive than alcohol or tobacco is the latest in a long series of acknowledgements that Britain's drug laws are unnecessarily draconian.

The finding by the Government's drugs advisory body that cannabis is less addictive than alcohol or tobacco is the latest in a long series of acknowledgements that Britain's drug laws are unnecessarily draconian.

The status of cannabis as a Class B substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has long been criticised as being out of step with public opinion of the dangers of the drug.

According to the latest British Crime Survey, 52 per cent of people aged between 20 and 24 admitted smoking cannabis.

The Government has been placed in a difficult position. On the one hand, swathes of young people are taking illicit substances recreationally every weekend and regard drug laws as antiquated and not credible. But on the other, ministers have been conscious of rising public fears over the criminality of addicts, drug turf wars on the streets, and the illegal trade's bankrolling of organised crime.

During his tenure as Home Secretary, Jack Straw vainly resisted change, ignoring the recommendations in a major report by the Police Foundation last year that cannabis, ecstasy and LSD should all be downgraded.

But Mr Straw's successor, David Blunkett, realised last October that something had to give; a cannabis law that provided for five-year jail sentences for possession did not tally with public attitudes.

Paving the way for the first relaxation of drugs legislation in 30 years, he pointed out that it was important that Britain's drug legislation was "taken seriously by young people", and proposed that cannabis be downgraded alongside tranquillisers, and its possession made a non-arrestable offence.

Yesterday the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs went even further. Not only did it uphold Mr Blunkett's recommendation for reclassification, but it observed that the "dependence potential" of cannabis was "substantially less than that of Class B drugs such as amphetamine or, indeed, that of tobacco or alcohol".

Drug charities were delighted. Roger Howard, the chief executive of DrugScope, said: "The ACMD has provided the hard scientific evidence that backs up the move to reclassify cannabis, and we hope the Home Secretary will quickly implement its advice."

Mr Howard praised the Home Secretary for being "willing to open up the debate on drugs and consider moving towards a more logical and pragmatic drugs policy".

DrugScope is among groups which would like to see Mr Blunkett go a lot further in a programme of drug reform. In particular, it supports calls for a reclassification of ecstasy from Class A to Class B. One official estimate last year found that up to two million tablets of the synthetic drug are being consumed by clubbers in Britain every weekend.

In acknowledgement of this, the Home Office last week produced a Safer Clubbing guide, in which for the first time it accepted that many young people saw drug-taking as an "integral part" of their social life.

It called on clubs up and down the country to provide special facilities for drug users, including chill-out rooms, treatment areas and plentiful supplies of water.

Conservative commentators have been predictably horrified by the developments.

Paul Betts, whose daughter Leah died after taking ecstasy, said yesterday that the proposed downgrading of cannabis was the start of the "slippery slope" towards decriminalisation.

The former police officer, who is now a drugs-awareness campaigner, claimed that the Government had reneged on its promises to be hard on drugs. "This has just proved they are liars," he said. "This is the start of the slippery slope. They are scared to say it's dangerous."

Wary of similar accusations that the Government was turning soft on drugs, Downing Street quickly issued a statement yesterday that "there are no plans for decriminalisation or legalisation".

But further relaxation of existing legislation seems certain. The Department of Health has finally heeded the cries of many sufferers from multiple sclerosis and other serious conditions that cannabis use helps to ease their pain.

Findings of a research project on the medical benefits of the drug have been forwarded to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence. The licensing of cannabis for medical use is now widely regarded as an inevitability.

Where the law stands on the most common drugs

Cocaine

Status: Class A and subject to maximum sentence of seven years in jail, or an unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: No prospect of reform. Cocaine use is increasing faster than that of any other Class A drug and dependency on the highly addictive derivative crack is linked to acquisitive crime.

Heroin

Status: Class A and subject to a maximum sentence of seven years in jail, or an

unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: There are calls to extend prescription of the drug to addicts, currently only provided by a handful of authorised doctors. The

Government is not likely to heed such calls.

Cannabis

Status: Class B and subject to a maximum jail sentence of five years, or an unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: Home Secretary's proposal to re-classify to Class C upheld yesterday by Advisory Council on the

Misuse of Drugs. This would mean a maximum sentence of two years.

Amphetamines

Status: Class B and subject to a maximum sentence of five years' imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, for possession.

Changes: There are no proposals to relax the law for amphetamines, also called speed, which the advisory council has said is far more harmful than cannabis.

Ecstasy

Status: Class A and subject to maximum sentence of seven years in jail or an

unlimited fine for possession.

Changes: Drugs charities want ecstasy, which is regularly used by people going to nightclubs,

re-categorised to Class B. However, the Government is resisting their calls.

Comments