Gov set to defy its own experts and upgrade cannabis

jacqui-smith.jpgBy Alan Travis | The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, will today stress the dangers of more potent strains of cannabis as she is expected to defy medical opinion by announcing that the drug will be upgraded from class C to class B.

Smith is expected to justify her decision by highlighting the strength of “skunk” strains of herbal cannabis now widely available. Gordon Brown last week warned of the “more lethal quality” of much of the cannabis now available, described it as a gateway drug, and said that reclassification was needed to “send a message to young people that it was unacceptable”.

The decision flies in the face of recommendations to be published today by the government’s scientific experts, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, that cannabis should remain class C.

The ACMD was asked last July by Smith to take their third look at cannabis classification in recent years. While acknowledging that cannabis use had fallen significantly since David Blunkett’s decision in 2004 to downgrade cannabis from class B to class C, she said there was real public concern about the potential mental health effects, particularly of stronger forms.

The ACMD held a special session in February and heard evidence that 80% of cannabis seized from users was of the herbal variety rather than resin. Experts said the potency of homegrown herbal cannabis tended to be two and a half times that of imported resin. But they said users now often moderated their intake.

They were also told that the incidence of new schizophrenia cases reported to GPs had gone down, not up, between 1998 and 2005, indicating a weak link between increased potency and use in the past two decades and mental health problems.

The Association of Chief Police Officers confirmed to the Guardian last week that they intend to retain their “confiscate and warn” policy for most who are found with a small amount of cannabis, although some chief constables want to see a fine imposed instead.

It is expected that reclassification will, however, lead to tougher enforcement in cases where there are aggravating factors such as public disorder or evidence of organised crime, for example involvement in large-scale cannabis growing. Since cannabis was downgraded in 2004 the proportion of young people using it has fallen each year from 25.3% in 2003-4 to 20.9% now. Among those aged 16 to 59, the proportion over the same period has fallen from 10.8% to 8.2%, according to the British Crime Survey.

Campaigners for drug law reform have questioned the relevance of the drug classification system, which dates back to 1971.

Roger Howard, chief executive of the UK Drug Policy Commission, and a former government drugs adviser, said last week that this case underlined the muddle at the heart of government over the purpose of a drug classification system which was unlikely ever to be able to “send a message to young people”. Since cannabis had moved from class B to class C, the number of schoolchildren who think it is fine to try cannabis had halved, he said.

Brown’s decision to overturn the advice of his own drug experts by pressing ahead with a tougher policy on cannabis could still face a high court challenge from campaigners. Any such challenge would have to demonstrate that ministers took the decision to upgrade cannabis without fully considering the ACMD’s report. The Guardian understands that at the ACMD meeting, the 23 medical and drug experts heard a presentation on the possible mental health impacts of stronger cannabis from psychologist Dr Martin Frisher of Keele University pharmacy school. The presentation used unpublished data from a confidential report he has drawn up for the Home Office.

He and his colleague, Professor Ilana Crome of Keele’s academic psychiatry unit, used data from 183 GP practices across Britain between 1996 and 2005 to work out whether schizophrenia is on the rise, and whether it can be linked to the increase in cannabis use since the 1970s.

Their paper found that between 1996 and 2005 there had been significant reductions in the prevalence of schizophrenia. From 2000 onwards there were also significant reductions in the prevalence of psychosis.

The authors say this data is “not consistent with the hypothesis that increasing cannabis use in earlier decades is associated with increasing schizophrenia or psychoses from the mid-1990s onwards”.