'Open mind' on cannabis classification

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The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has insisted she still has an open mind about whether cannabis should be reclassified, the head of the Government's drug advisers said today.

Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, said he had received a letter of reassurance from the politician after reports that she was prepared to disregard the committee's recommendations.

On the day the ACMD begins a two-day evidence session examining whether tougher penalties should be introduced for cannabis - four years after it was downgraded from Class B to Class C - Sir Michael said: "I will be reading a letter from the Home Secretary that I received yesterday, basically saying that the Government has an open mind."

Some members of the committee had said they would consider resigning if the Government ignored its conclusions.

Asked if he had been reassured by the pledges in Ms Smith's letter, Sir Michael said: "Absolutely, yes."

He also revealed that the ACMD would today hear new evidence on the latest trends in the potency of the cannabis available on Britain's streets.

Research on the drug's effects on mental health will also be discussed.

Additionally, the ACMD will reveal the results of market research which looked into whether the public was aware of cannabis's current legal status and the potential penalties for using the drug.

Cannabis was reclassified in January 2004, making possession a largely non-arrestable offence, and placing it alongside some prescription anti-depressants and bodybuilding drugs.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced last July, within weeks of taking over at No 10, that he would demand a new review of the drug's legal position because of new emerging evidence about its effects and reports that stronger strains of the drug were becoming available.

Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne, Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) spokesman on cannabis and one of those giving evidence, said Acpo supported a return to a Class B classification "quite unequivocally".

"It is a very interesting debate and there are a wide variety of opinions which we respect, but the bottom line from a police point of view is that since reclassification four years ago we have seen a significant rise in cannabis farms, which point to increasing use of organised crime in this particular market; that's a worry for us," he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"There has been confusion on the streets about whether cannabis is legal or not which is fuelling public concern about how it is being policed."

He added: "We have put a lot of effort in the last 12 months across the country into enforcing the law in relation to disrupting and dismantling cannabis farms but we are worried that if a clear statement is not made by reclassification to B it sends a message out to criminals that this is OK.

"That's not a point of view we would want to endorse."