REPLY FROM BOB AINSWORTH MP, HOME OFFICE, OCTOBER 2002
Thank you for your letter of 30 September to David Blunkett, enclosing a copy of an email from Ms **** of Kent*****, in which she expresses concern about the Government's proposal to amend the law relating to cannabis by reclassifying the drug from Class B to Class C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and this leads her to believe that it is essential to introduce a legal supply of the drug. I am replying as the Minister with responsibility for drugs issues. Can I first explain that the Government has no intention of either decriminalising or legalising cannabis (other than for scientifically established medicinal use if current clinical trials of a medical preparation of the drug are successful). The unauthorized production (including cultivation), supply and possession of cannabis are illegal and will remain illegal. The Government's message to all - and to young people in particular - is that all controlled drugs, including cannabis, are harmful and that no one should take them. But it is important that our drugs laws should accurately reflect the relative harms of drugs if we are to put out an effective and credible message to young people about the dangers of misusing drugs, and if the police are to focus their resources effectively on tackling Class A drugs, like heroin and crack cocaine, which do the most harm. The Home Secretary has made clear that it is his absolute priority to tackle these Class A drugs.
Accordingly, last year, the Home Secretary asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for advice on the classification of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act. In giving this advice, the Council asked for it to be clearly understood that cannabis is unquestionably harmful. It has a number of acute and chronic health effects and can induce dependence. But the Council nevertheless advised that the current classification of cannabis as a Class B drug is disproportionate in relation both to its inherent toxicity (harm), and to that of other substances (such as the amphetamines), which are currently in Class B and, accordingly, it recommended that cannabis should be reclassified to Class C. The Home Secretary has accepted this recommendation. The matter will be debated in Parliament and, if approved by both Houses, it is likely to come into effect by July 2003.
Ms ***** is largely correct in her overview of the effect of the proposed changes in relation to the supply and possession of cannabis as a result of reclassification. However, I should draw attention to a few points to clarify the position and demonstrate that the Government is not advocating a soft line on cannabis, as she intimates.
If Parliament approves reclassification, cannabis will remain a controlled drug and possessing it will remain a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum of two years' imprisonment. In conjunction with reclassification, Parliament will also be asked to change the law so that the police will have the power of arrest for the possession of Class C drugs. Thereby they will retain the power of arrest for offences of possession of cannabis, not lose it as Ms **** believes. (Under guidance to be issued, it is intended that this power should only be used in cases where there are aggravating factors, such as where there is a danger to public order or flagrant disregard for the law.) This change will enhance the credibility of our drugs laws as a whole, not least by better aligning public policy with police enforcement and what is happening in the courts.
The Government takes supplying and dealing in cannabis very seriously and seeks to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We therefore intend to change the law, as Ms ***** knows, to increase the maximum penalty for supply and dealing in Class C drugs from 5 years' to 1 4 years' imprisonment. This means that, on reclassification, the maximum penalty for trafficking cannabis will stay at 1 4 years' imprisonment, and the courts will continue to be able to impose substantial sentences for serious dealing offences involving cannabis.
We accept that our message on reclassification is not clearly understood, so we will launch a campaign to educate young people and the public generally about reclassification and to ensure that the clear message that all controlled drugs are illegal and harmful continues to be heard and heeded.
Ms **** believes that introducing a legal supply of cannabis (including domestic cultivation) would represent a positive step forward in easing the drug problem and helping to sever the connection between cannabis and hard drugs. She adds that allowing cannabis to be grown in the home could reduce dealing in the drug. Also, the Government could legalise cannabis for the purposes of controlling its quality. You will have gathered, however, that the Government has no intention of Iegalising the drug. It is our target to reduce the reported use of all illegal drugs, including cannabis, substantially, not to encourage their use and the consequent drain upon the health services that would result from increased consumption due to more ready access. While our drugs laws cannot be expected to eliminate drug misuse, there is no doubt that they do help to limit use and deter experimentation.
There is an international consideration. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971 and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances 1 988 each commit the international community to working together against the illicit drugs trade primarily by prohibiting (where prohibition is regarded as the most appropriate means of protecting public health and welfare) the production, supply, possession and use of many drugs, including cannabis, except for medical and scientific research purposes. Unilateral action on our part would undoubtedly encourage unwanted drug tourism to this country. The Government is aware of the arguments for legalising controlled drugs, but has concluded that the disadvantages would outweigh the benefits.
The proposed reclassification is, of course, part of a much broader package of drugs strategy measures which has a strong emphasis on treatment (both for those in the community and those within the criminal justice system and prison), education, information, advice and harm minimisation. We are working hard to do all that we can to enhance our chances of saving thousands of people from the terrible misery which is inflicted on them, their families and, of course, the wider community as a result of the misuse of drugs.
From Claire Harrod, Action Against Drugs Unit, Home Office, 50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT
Fax : 0171 273 2671, Direct Line : 0171 273 2185
*quot;I can assure you the Government has no intention of decriminalising, legalising or legitimising the use of any illegal drug, including cannabis. The only certain effect of such a move would be to increase the misuse of those drugs and the problems which arise from their misuse. It therefore has no intention of moving in that direction.
"The Government believes that drug misuse should be tackled through a balanced and coherent strategy, a task which they are intent on undertaking with the assistance of the recently appointed Anti-Drugs Co-ordinator, Keith Hallawell. "
Claire Harrod: April 21 1998
WHO Report Summary as enclosed in a letter from the Home Office, July 1998:
Acute health effects of cannabis use.
The acute effects of canabis use have been recognized for many years, and recent studies have confirmed and extended earlier findings. These may be summarized as follows:
- cannabis impairs cognitive development (capabilities of learning), including associative processes; free recall of previously learned items is often impaired when cannabis is used both during learning and recall periods.
- cannabis impairs psychomotor performance in a wide variety of tasks, such as motor coordination, divided attention, and operative tasks of many types; human performance on complex machinery can be impaired for as long as 24 hours after smoking as little as 20 mg of THC in cannabis; there is an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents among persons who drive when intoxicated by cannabis.
Chronic health effects of cannabis use.
The chronic use of cannabis produces additional health hazards including:
- selective impairments of cognitive functioning which include the organization and integration of complex information involving various mechanisms of attention and memory processes;
- prolonged use may lead to greater impairment, which may not recover with cessation of use, and which could effect daily life functions;
- development of cannabis dependence syndrome characterized by a loss of control over cannabis use is likely in chronic users;
- cannabis use can exacerbate schizophrenia in affected individuals;
- epithelial injury of the trachea and major bronchi is caused by long-term cannabis smoking;
- airway injury, lung inflammation, and impaired pulmonary defence against infection from persistent cannabis consumption over prolonged periods;
- heavy cannabis consumption is associated with a higher prevalence of symptoms of chronic bronchitis and a higher incidence of acute bronchitis than in non-smoking cohort;
- cannabis use during pregnancy is associated with impairment of fetal development leading to reduction in birth weight.
- cannabis use during pregnancy may lead to postnatal risk of rare forms of cancer although more research is needed in this area.
The health consequences of cannabis use in developing countries are largely unknown because of limited and non-systematic research, but there is no reason a priori to expect that biological effects on individuals in these populations would be substantially different to what has been observed in developed countries. However, other consequences might be different given the cultural and social differences between countries.
Therapeutic use of cannabinoids
Several studies have demonstrated the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids for nausea and vomiting in the advanced stages of illnesses such as cancer and AIDS. Dronabinol (tetrahydrocannabinol) has been available by prescription for more than a decade in the USA. Other therapeutic uses of cannabinoids are being demonstrated by controlled studies, including treatment of asthma and glaucoma, as an antidepressant, appetite stimulant, anticonvulsant and anti-spasmodic, research in this area should continue. For example, more basic research on the central and peripheral mechanisms of the effects of cannabinoids on gasrtointestinal function may improve the ability to alleviate nausea and emesis, More research is needed on the basic neurophramacology of THC and other cannabinoids so that better therapeutic agents can be found.
THEY FORGOT TO MENTION THIS:
"A great many assumptions have been made in extrapolating from health effects observed in laboratory animals to the probable health effects of equivalent doses and patterns of use in humans. In addition, there may be problems in extrapolating studies with pure THC to human experience with crude cannabis preparations. The plant material contains many other compounds, both cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid in nature and the possibility must always be considered that differences between experimental and clinical observations may be due in part to the effects of these other substances.""
Report of the World Health Organisation