17TH January 2006-01-17
As Parliament, and certain sections of the public wait for Mr.Blair (or his Home Secretary Charles Clarke) to issue a pronouncement on the classification of cannabis, the situation becomes daily almost as blurred as the outlook of a heavy user.
In parliamentary updates covering just a few days in early January there were no less than 14 bulletins.
Conservative MP Nigel Evans updated his Early Day Motion highlighting links between cannabis and psychosis. (speaking on drug use generally, not just cannabis, MP John Mann elicited an answer from the Minister for Employment, Margaret Hodge, giving another facet to the costs borne by society in consequence of disabilities arising from drug abuse. Mrs. Hodge revealed that as at May 2005, there were 48,300 Incapacity Benefit and Severe Disability Allowance claimants whose primary diagnosis was recorded as ‘drug abuse’.
Shadow Home Secretary David Davis welcomed Charles Clarke’s expression of concern about links between cannabis and mental illness, but – significantly – he no longer pressed for cannabis to be re-classified to Class B. (In the past he had several times made this an unequivocal commitment on his part, but with the arrival of David Cameron as the new leader, this commitment was shelved. Cameron had been a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee , in which he was minuted as supporting the downgrading of cannabis, and also of Ecstasy, as well as suggesting that the UN Conventions were due for reappraisal).
Lib-Dem MP Mark Oaten said “the government should base its drug classification on the facts and not tabloid pressure”. (said tabloid pressure has in the past been kind to Mr. Oaten when he has suggested the liberalisation of drug laws).
One unexpected knock-back for prevention workers came when the mental health charity Rethink said that they were “against reinstating cannabis as a Class B drug”. Rethink CEO Cliff Prior said “such a move would unnecessarily waste resources, which could be better invested in education”. Prior called for public education and cessation programmes, however he believed that “the legal status doesn’t seem to make any difference at all to the level of use”. (it is not known how Mr. Prior reached this conclusion, when comparing it with evidence worldwide). Rethink are said to be in discussion with the Dept. of Health in the context of public health education.
Other comments were more predictable. Labour MP Paul Flynn (a long term advocate of liberalisation) said it would be a mistake to re-classify back to Class B. The Release charity said it should remain a class C drug. Drugscope nailed its colours firmly to the fence by saying that the government “would have to have very compelling reasons to reverse the re-classification of cannabis from Class B to Class C if an Advisory Council recommended maintaining the status quo”. At the same time Drugscope CEO Martin Barnes warned that “ cannabis may be more dangerous than many people believe”. He said that he believed that cannabis carried many health risks.
The University of London introduced a sober note in reporting on links between cannabis and mental illness. Professor Colin Drummond said the Home Secretary is right to consider raising the classification of cannabis due to the mental health risks. He felt that the downgrading of cannabis to Class C had led people to wrongly believe that it was ‘safe’. He stressed ‘it would send a better message if cannabis was re-classified and there was more consideration given to public information about the risks of cannabis. The professor also said that, whilst he supported the freedom of people to make personal choices the ‘vulnerable group in the population of adolescents’ could not be expected to make an informed choice without improvement to drugs education.
A former companion of Professor Drummond on the rostrum, arguing for greater concerns about cannabis, was Professor Robin Murray from the Institute of Psychiatry. He argued that even though the government “wrongly introduced downgrading” the impact of greater knowledge amongst the populace had actually yielded s small decrease in the use of the drug. Revealingly, Professor Drummond said “the government had a hole dug for it by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. They got a very false account from that Council in 2002 which essentially said that cannabis was relatively safe and there was not a link between cannabis and psychosis.” However, he went on to say that he did not think the exact classification to be that important. For him “the crucial thing is education”.
Prevention-oriented advisory NGO’s such as the National Drug Prevention Alliance have continued to advocate upgrading cannabis to Class B, and this has been endorsed by media commentators who could be classified as ‘conservative with a small c’. A surprising ally in criticising the downgrading was Deputy Asst Commissioner for Met. Police Brian Paddick who, when a Commander of the police division encompassing Lambeth, unilaterally decriminalised cannabis on the eve of the pro-cannabis lobby march through the division. D.A.C Paddick says that he had “always opposed downgrading the drug”. He said he had always believed the move was unnecessary and would cause more damage than good. In an interesting aside he suggested that the Home Office decision may have dissuaded officers from concentrating on tackling crack cocaine and heroin suppliers; this is because “cannabis warnings now count the same as a conviction for rape or murder under figures for the number of offences brought to justice” he said. “Effectively, it means that a cannabis warning on the street is one of the quickest and easiest ways of achieving targets that police forces are under increasing pressure to meet”.
Home Secretary Charles Clarke will be drawing his conclusions against the background of his own statement to the public that “the public were misled about cannabis”. Mr. Clarke has been known in the past to be a supporter of preventive policies. The move to downgrade cannabis by his predecessor, David Blunkett, has clearly left him uncomfortable; in recent days Mr. Blunkett has seen fit to press Mr. Clarke (and Mr. Blair) to keep the classification where he, Mr. Blunkett, put it. It remains to be seen whether this will be seen as advice or provocation.
IN WRITING THIS WEEKEND (16TH JANUARY) TO BOTH MR. BLAIR AND MR. CLARKE, THE NDPA DID WHAT IT COULD TO STRENGTHEN THE RESOLVE TO UPGRADE CANNABIS WHICH HAS BEEN PERCEIVED IN THE RECENT STATEMENTS BY THESE TWO. IN THE LETTER, NDPA SAYS:
OUR ANALYSIS OF THE CURRENT UK DRUGS MARKET SUGGESTS TO US THAT THERE IS NO SINGLE ACT THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT COULD TAKE THAT WOULD MAKE THE BRITISH PEOPLE, AND INDEED THE WORLD, MORE AWARE OF THE DANGERS OF CANNABIS THAN BY PUTTING IT BACK WHERE IT WAS, IN CLASS B.
SUCH A DECISION WOULD REVERBERATE THROUGHOUT THE WORLDWIDE MEDIA AND WOULD SECURE WORLDWIDE ATTENTION. SUCH A DECISION WOULD LEAD ANY WORLDWIDE POLICY REVIEW.