Adrian Butler on what is a live issue as an election nears
CANNABIS is shaping up to be an important issue in the coming general election.
With crime always at the top of the agenda, Home Secretary Charles Clarke last week ordered a review of his predecessor David Blunkett's decision to downgrade the drug to Class C in January, 2004.
The decision made cannabis the same as drugs such as Valium in the eyes of the law.
This meant that, although you can go to prison for 14 years for dealing in cannabis, other penalties were reduced. The maximum sentence for posession has been cut from five to two years.
There is also a presumption against arrest for adults found with the drug on themselves for personal use, which many interpreted as meaning the police are less likely to pursue them.
In February, police officers discovered a cannabis factory in Anfield and police said at the time they "will not tolerate the cultivation and supply of cannabis" while Conservative leader Michael Howard has in recent weeks already called for cannabis to be reclassified as a Class B drug, allowing more stringent laws and sharper punishents to come into effect.
Reiterating this, MP David Cameron, who is head of Conservative policy co-ordination, said that, although there had been disagreements, the party stood firm on reversing current Government policy on the drug.
The Government has insisted that the review of the decision to reclassify cannabis, after studies suggested links with mental illness, is not a policy reversal.
The question is: should cannabis be made a Class B drug again?
Class C classification is a small step forward
NO SAYS Chris Davies, Lib Dem MEP, who pleaded guilty to defying the law at a demonstration in Stockport when he held up a small quantity of cannabis resin to show support for establishing Dutch-style cannabis coffee shops
THE Home Secretary's suggestion that he wants a rethink on the very policies towards cannabis his government introduced is nothing more than cynical manoeuvring in the weeks before a general election.
The Government's decision last year to downgrade the classification of cannabis was taken on the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Charles Clarke has asked for further comment from the advisory council as a result of emerging evidence of a link between cannabis and deteriorating mental health.
But this is nothing new, and the answer is not to take a step backwards towards stricter regulation. No drug is safe, certainly not tobacco or alcohol, but there has to be a sense of proportion.
People should have better information about the cannabis they use rather than being kept in the dark.
In Dutch coffee shops, smokers choose their cannabis from a menu giving information about the strength of each drug and people can make informed decisions about their choice.
It is unlikely that the advisory council will change their mind, but it will buy time for a government unable to defend their drugs policy properly. The Home Secretary's rethink is about neutralising Tory claims that the Labour party is soft on drugs.
If the Government is serious about tackling the problem, the way forward is to introduce government licensing and regulation for all drugs, putting bureaucrats in place of the drug barons.
Our drug laws are designed to do just one thing, to put lots and lots of money into the hands of criminals.
Prohibition has been a complete and absolute failure.
In 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed, Britain had 10,000 heroin addicts. Today, there are 300,000, perhaps more. The suppliers laugh all the way to the bank.
The Home Secretary should aim to drive a wedge between "soft" and "hard" drugs.. He should follow the successful Dutch approach and allow local councils to licence cannabis coffee shops for the sale of small quantities of the product.
We should not criminalise around 100,000 young people each year for cannabis possession. It is a huge waste of police time and money, not to mention all the distress caused to those fined, imprisoned or humiliated in their local newspapers for doing something that caused no harm to anyone else.
Classification of cannabis as a Class C drug is a small step forward and the Government should stop backtracking at the first political hurdle.
Its use increases the risk of schizophrenia
YES SAYS Grainne Currie, Regional Manager Rethink - charity involving people with severe mental illness and carers
ON MARCH 19, 2005, Rethink severe mental illness welcomed the Home Office climb-down that will see new links between cannabis and the development of schizophrenia investigated by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs. The move came just 12 months after cannabis was reclassified from a Class B to Class C drug.
While the reclassification debate has sent out confusing messages it is, by no means, the real issue for Rethink as our concerns only lie in highlighting the mental health risks associated with cannabis use as many young people view cannabis as a risk-free drug.
Rethink has been lobbying the Home Office and Department of Health for nearly two years, warning them that cannabis use was leading to more young people being putting at risk of developing schizophrenia. Time and again we were told that the Government did not accept the evidence. Now, at last, some action is being taken.
This is a real victory for all the people with severe mental illness and their families who have backed our campaign for more research. There is mounting evidence that cannabis dramatically increases the risk of developing schizophrenia in people where there is a family history of the ill-ness, and significantly increases the risk even where there is no family history.
Now we must ensure that the advisory council doesn't rest on its previous flawed advice to the Home Office, but hears from the individuals and family members who have been affected and from the professionals who have backed our campaign. We want people to have the clearest possible under-standing of the link between long-term and early age use of cannabis and schizophrenia. The Department of Health needs to gear themselves up for a massive public health campaign to bring home the message to the country's 4m regular cannabis users that it is not a risk-free drug.
The advisory council must follow best practice in health consultations and involve real people and real experiences. It should not take a narrow focus on the issue of classification but give full consideration to a properly-funded, long-term public health campaign led by the Department of Health.
We believe that the Department of Health was the right government department to act on the council's findings by mirroring public health campaigns in France, the Netherlands, New Zealand and elsewhere.
This is a huge public health issue with potentially serious consequences for many thousands of the 4m regular cannabis users in this country. Yet it is being dealt with as if it were a criminal justice issue.
We want people to have the clearest possible understanding of the link between long-term and early age use of cannabis and schizophrenia. The Department of Health is leading campaigns on smoking, Aids, and obesity. It cannot leave cannabis to the Home Office.
The referral back to the advisory council is a real victory for all the people with severe mental illness and their families who have backed our campaign.