Leading article: Clouds of confusion

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The Independent Online

It is hard to think of a more wrong-headed response from Gordon Brown to his plummeting popularity than the expected approval today for the re-classification of cannabis. This will constitute a reversal of a reform introduced only four years ago that downgraded cannabis from a class B to class C narcotic.

Mr Brown, chastened by Labour's electoral humbling, claims that he is listening. He is; but not to those who know what they are talking about. The Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has come down against re-classification on public health grounds. Though popular varieties of cannabis are stronger, it argues that there have been no studies that demonstrate a causal "link" between cannabis use and mental illness.

Sadly, such informed counsel has been ignored. Instead, Mr Brown has turned his ear to the hysterical outpourings of certain sections of the press, which have long demanded a reversal of the downgrading of cannabis on the grounds that no government "tough" on drugs would have relaxed the law. The Prime Minister is giving them what they want.

This is gesture politics at its most pathetic. The Prime Minister argued last week, on reclassification, that: "We really have got to send out a message to young people [that] this is not acceptable." Mr Brown seems to think that official drug classifications are a deterrent. This is a fantasy. For one thing, despite the 2004 downgrading, cannabis possession remains an arrestable and imprisonable offence. Reclassification will do nothing except double the maximum sentence for possession to five years. And since this sentence is very rarely used, it will have no added deterrent effect whatsoever. The 2004 downgrading was a step forward because it freed up the police to concentrate on tackling the distribution of hard drugs. Now officers will once again find their time wasted arresting cannabis smokers.

Once again, the fight against addiction and trafficking of hard drugs is hampered by muddle-headed politicians playing cheap politics with an issue of deadly seriousness. The Government should be treating addiction as a medical and educational challenge, focusing on harm-reduction, rather than prosecutions. As Professor Robin Murray, one of Britain's top experts on schizophrenia and cannabis argues "education is much more important than classification. The problem is that education costs money, switching the classification doesn't".

Rather than taking time to formulate a rational and effective policy on curbing drug abuse, the Prime Minister has chosen to exploit the classification issue to win a handful of favourable headlines. If this is Mr Brown's idea of a bold political re-launch, he is in even deeper trouble than he imagines.