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08/07/2007 00:00:00

UK: Tories highlight cannabis dangers in drug blueprint

The health risks of cannabis are so great that it should now be
reclassified as a class B drug, carrying much greater penalties for
possession and trafficking, says David Cameron's new blueprint for
dealing with Britain's growing addiction problems.

The Tory leader has been convinced by emerging evidence that a strong
form of the drug, skunk, is causing an epidemic of mental health
disorders. A report being published this week by a Conservative policy
commission will confront the issue, recommending an upgrading of the
drug to class B, as well as arguing the case for a complete
transformation of addiction treatment in Britain.

This comes as Labour and the Tories go head to head on the issue of
social breakdown, with both parties competing to show they have
solutions that would strengthen families and prevent antisocial behaviour.

Ed Balls, the new Secretary of State for Schools, Children and the
Family, is this week expected to announce new measures on parenting amid
concern that too many children are being left to grow up in rootless and
unstable environments.

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who heads the commission, will
produce his report, entitled Breakthrough Britain, on Tuesday. He has
looked at the costs of social breakdown and will propose a series of
measures to tackle issues such as addiction, and also to strengthen the
family and protect children.

One of the key measures will be a new 'treatment tax' on drink which
would be used to provide an increase of £400m on the amount spent on
treatment and recovery programmes for both alcoholics and addicts. The
tax - which could see an increase of around three per cent on alcohol,
adding 25p to the cost of a bottle of whisky - would not go straight
into the Treasury as VAT and excise duty does, but would instead be set
aside for medical treatment.

Speaking to The Observer yesterday, Duncan Smith said: 'We know now that
cannabis is incredibly dangerous as a drug. For years people have been
allowed to get away with this rather loose and wishy-washy idea that in
the Sixties we took it and it didn't matter. But in the Sixties it was a
much less potent drug, and now they have this stuff that is home-grown,
which is at least 12 times more powerful.'

He added: 'The real effect is on young kids who take it. We regularly
have kids who take it at the age of 11 or 12. If your brain is growing,
you can kiss goodbye to that - by the time you are 16 or 17 you will be
in a psychotic state. It is an enormously dangerous drug, but a lot of
middle-class families don't see that.'

The government downgraded the drug to a class C in 2004 after concern
that police were spending too much time arresting people for cannabis
possession rather than focusing on tackling harder drugs. Although
possession is still a criminal offence, in practice, this means that
most adults found with the drug are let off with a warning,

A Home Office review in 2006 decided there was no need to change the
classification, despite the changing medical advice. The Home Office has
pointed to a decline in the number of people using cannabis which they
believe is linked to the fact that they downgraded the drug.

However, it is undeniable that the health effects are worsening. In
2005, 10,000 11 to 17-year-olds were treated for cannabis use - 10 times
the number a decade ago. Plants are increasingly cultivated to include
high levels of the active ingredient of cannabis, THC,
delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, which encourages addiction and which
causes a range of symptoms, from short-term memory loss, anxiety and
panic attacks to triggering schizophrenia.

Duncan Smith said the slogan 'war on drugs... should be binned because
that sends the wrong signals. It is not a war on drugs. It is about
getting kids off drugs.'

Reclassification had to be linked to a proper treatment programme which
offered people the chance of complete abstinence, rather than focusing
on harm reduction.

The report suggests that too many people are now 'parked on substitute
drugs' such as methadone, rather than being given the chance of complete

Author: The Observer via UKCIA

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