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27/07/2007 00:00:00

UK: Q and A: Cannabis

A new piece of scientific research on the impact of cannabis on mental
health has reignited the debate on the drug's classification.

What is cannabis?

The cannabis plant contains a drug - delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
- which, when absorbed into the bloodstream, accumulates in the brain
and other major organs, producing an effect or "high".

It can be smoked or eaten and an estimated 500,000 individuals in the UK
are believed to be dependent on it.

The drug can affect people in different ways - often dependent on how
and in what form the user has taken the drug; it can act as a mild
sedative, causing the user to feel relaxed or even sleepy, and it can
also act as a mild hallucinogen.

Why is there such debate over what class of drug it is?
Drugs are put into categories depending on how harmful they are. Class A
- including Heroin and Cocaine - is considered the most harmful, Class B
includes amphetamines and barbiturates; and Class C is considered the
least harmful, for example anabolic steroids.

Cannabis was recently declassified from a Class B drug to a Class C.
Pressure has since been put on the home office to reclassify the drug to
Class B again.

Why was cannabis downgraded?

Former home secretary David Blunkett downgraded cannabis from a Class B
drug to a Class C drug in 2004 as part of a strategy to focus on
increased usage of Class Adrugs like heroin and cocaine.

This meant that rather than arrest for possession for personal use, an
informal on-the-spot warning from police and confiscation of the drug
would be more likely.

This change was based on advice from scientific and medical experts from
the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which argued
cannabis was less harmful than other Class B drugs, such as amphetamine.

Who was against this change in the law?

The British Medical Association (BMA) warned of the health risks around
chronic cannabis smoking (heart disease, lung cancer, bronchitis and
emphysema); psychiatrists were concerned about the drug's link to
psychosis; and the Tories denounced the decision as absurd.

Who was for it?

Drug support charities argued it would lead to more consistent policing,
although Addaction did warn the downgrading could lead people to wrongly
believe the drug was being decriminalised.

Why was the situation reviewed just a year later?

Fresh concern arose after a series of studies linking super-strength
cannabis varieties - like skunk - and mental illness and behavioural

In March 2005, Mr Clarke asked the ACMD to review the dangers of
cannabis and to examine the Dutch government's plans to introduce a
higher classification for more potent types of dope.

Although the ACMD apparently recognised the impact of smoking cannabis
on mental health was more serious than previously thought it did not
recommend reclassifying cannabis.

But pressure has been maintained to reclassify the drug from many
quarters. Since then the head of the United Nations anti-drugs
department, Antonio Maria Costa, has criticised the downgrading of the
drug, as have magistrates who voted to lobby the government to reverse
the reclassification believing the Class C decision given out the wrong
messages to young people.

And now?

The research published in the Lancet journal today has once again caused
concern over the link between psychosis and cannabis use.

Figures obtained by the Tories last month showed that mental health
hospital admissions due to cannabis have risen by 85 per cent under
Labour, with a 63 per cent increase in the last five years.

The Lancet research, meanwhile, says that even taking the drug once was
associated with a 41 per cent greater risk of developing psychosis. For
frequent users, the research said, the risk rose to between 50 per cent
and 200 per cent.

However critics have warned the risks of accepting such research at face
value. Indeed, even one of the research scientists who worked on the
report said on today's Channel 4 News at Noon that the report is an
extremely conditional piece of analysis - and that scientists would need
to have a detailed analysis of every individual's psychological make-up
to get a fully comprehensive idea of whether cannabis had in fact
triggered any significant psychological alteration.

A spokesperson from Drugsscope also said out on the show that if a user
had a propensity towards or existing mental illness they would be more
likely to develop psychosis - but pointed out that this has been known
for quite some time.

He also said that reclassifying the drug would not change the problem of
the drug's impact on mental health, because "people respond to what they
actually experience themselves", not the government's latest drug policy.

Author: Channel 4 News via UKCIA

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