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20/07/2007 00:00:00

UK: Is there any point in making cannabis class B?

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced a review of the classification
of cannabis. Returning it from class C to class B, which it was until
three years ago, would effectively make possession of the drug an
arrestable offence once again. A significant number of MPs, including
one from Sussex, admit they have used the drug in the past. Some are now
backing moves to reintroduce tougher penalties for having cannabis.

Francis Maude says it was hard to go through Cambridge in the Seventies
without using cannabis a few times.

The Horsham Tory is one of a growing number of MPs who have admitted
dabbling with the drug. But he supports a move to reintroduce tougher
penalties for those who use it.

He said: "I think it should be reclassified because it is, I have heard,
much stronger nowadays. But there is also far more known about its
damaging effect on health today and for that reason I think we should
reclassify it.

"I think reclassification would send out a signal that there are harsher
penalties available to the courts to deal with cannabis users."

Mr Maude spoke out after Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yet
another review of the cannabis issue.

The Government's advisory committee on the misuse of drugs is to
consider whether powerful new strains of cannabis mean it should be
moved back to class B.

It was downgraded to class C in 2004 after a review requested by David
Blunkett when he was Home Secretary.

At the time it was believed the move would allow police to concentrate
on tackling high-classification substances such as heroin and cocaine,
while allowing medical experts the time and resources to tackle the
underlying issues of cannabis abuse.

There is evidence that cannabis use, particularly among young people,
has dropped slightly in the intervening years. However, there remains
serious concern over the proliferation of mental illness and other
debilitating conditions caused by use of the drug.

In Britain, an estimated 500,000 people a year are affected by cannabis
induced illnesses, according to the NHS.

That figure has remained more or less constant since the year 2000,
which suggests that regrading the drug had little effect. It is a view
shared by Rethink, the national mental health organisation, which
believes cannabis should remain as class C.

A Sussex spokesman for the group said: "The experiences of our members
tell us that re-introducing tougher criminal penalties for possession
and use would do nothing to reduce use. Most people who have experienced
the misery of developing mental illness from using cannabis want to see
a properly funded health campaign, not harsher laws that end up
criminalising people who have developed a health problem."

Chris Baldwin, 57, a lifetime user of cannabis and former manager of a
cannabis café in Worthing, agrees it should not be a class B drug. He
says the latest proposals are simply a Government attempt at headline
grabbing which will have little or no effect.

Father-of-one Mr Baldwin, a fierce advocate of legalising cannabis,
served six months in jail for his part in running the café.

He said more needs to be done to tackle the underlying issues
surrounding cannabis.

Mr Baldwin, who suffered crippling injury as a child, said: "I use it to
treat my legs and I've never had anything better on prescription or
otherwise. It just works for me. Trying to reclassify it is just another
knee-jerk reaction and whether it is class C or class B it will make
little difference.

"What about alcohol? So many problems are caused by alcohol abuse but
little is done to stop the use of alcohol. People talk about psychosis
being caused by cannabis but there are plenty of other drugs,
prescription drugs, which do more damage.

"I'm in agreement that we should stop young people from using cannabis.
I wouldn't want my children to use it. But the Government needs to
address the underlying issues rather than just talk about reclassification.

They set up committees with anti-cannabis people but they never talk to
the people like me who have been using the drug for years.

"I'm obviously against reclassifying cannabis to class B because I want
to see it legalised. The reality is if people want to get hold of it,
they always have been able to and they always will be able to."

Worthing West MP Peter Bottomley, like a number of other MPs in the
county, denies ever smoking cannabis. He is broadly in favour of
reclassification to class B.

He said: "Whatever the classification is, there has to be a drastic
reduction in the number of people who are using this drug.

"I'm too old to have been part of the permissive society so I'm not
speaking from a position of experience. But I would say cannabis usage
is not a good thing and we should be working towards its eradication."

While almost all of Sussex MPs deny trying cannabis, more high-profile
Cabinet ministers have freely admitted taking it.

Yesterday, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Home Office minister Tony
McNulty admitted they once smoked cannabis as did Chancellor Alistair
Darling, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears and Ruth Kelly, the
Transport Secretary. They defended their right to make the admissions
and said taking the drug was a "mistake".

Doubts remain over whether Tory leader David Cameron has used drugs
after he refused to comment on claims he was disciplined at Eton for
smoking cannabis.

A Sussex spokesman for Frank, the Government's anti-drug organisation,
said: "It doesn't help when high-profile figures confirm drug usage."

What do you think? Leave your comments below.

Author: The Argus: Worthing via UKCIA

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