BY ROSEMARY BENNETT, DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR
The public was misled about the dangers of taking cannabis when the Government unwittingly decided to downgrade the drug less than a year ago, the Home Secretary admits today.
In a damning assessment of the decision taken by his predecessor, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke said he is “very worried” about recent evidence suggesting a strong link between cannabis and mental illness. His remarks, made in an interview with The Times, come just weeks before he must decide whether or not to execute an embarrassing about-turn and restore the drug’s Class B status.
Mr Clarke said there was an alarming lack of knowledge about the health dangers posed by the drug among the general public. He also admitted that many people had been left confused by the law change.
“Whatever happens after this, let me reveal one recommendation of the advisory committee, which they make very, very strongly, which is a renewed commitment to public education about the potential affects of the consumption of cannabis, and the legal status of cannabis. That is well made, and I will accept it.”
Asked specifically if the confusion was a result of Mr Blunkett’s decision to downgrade the drug, he said: “Yes. People do not understand the impact of the consumption of cannabis well enough, and what the legal consequences of consuming cannabis are.”
Over Christmas Mr Clarke read the report from a special advisory group he set up to assess the latest medical evidence, and will discuss its findings with colleagues this week before making a final decision.
Leaks of the report suggest the committee says use of the drug is clearly linked to mental illness, but stops short of recommending reclassification.
Mr Clarke refused to confirm the report’s central thrust, but said he had already accepted a secondary recommendation, that ministers had to clear up the confusion in the public’s mind about the drug. “The thing that worries me most (about the downgrading of cannabis) is confusion among the punters about what the legal status of cannabis is.”
The drug was downgraded in in the hope that it would allow the police to focus on more serious drug abuse. Mr Clarke said it was significant how many advocates of the change had had second thoughts.
“I’m very struck by the advocacy of a number of people who have been proposers of the reclassification of cannabis that they were wrong,” he said.
“I am also very worried about the most recent medical evidence on mental health. This is a very serious issue.”
Asked if the downgrading of the drug had served any useful purpose, Mr Clarke paused before responding: “I think it gives it a steer to the citizen on more serious drug consumption.”
Although an about-turn would be embarrassing, it may cause Labour fewer problems in the long run. Mr Clarke will champion curbs on antisocial behaviour this year, which strategists say is undermined by a soft approach to cannabis.