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Charities warn against changing drug policy to win votes

David Batty, The Guardian, 5th May 2005

Any further reclassification of cannabis must be due to robust medical evidence and not political spin to win votes in the general election, drug charities said today.

The warning came after the prime minister made strong hints that his government’s decision to downgrade the classification of cannabis 15 months ago will be reversed if Labour is re-elected.

Tony Blair’s comments follow mounting concern that cannabis can trigger psychosis, with the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, having already promised to restore the drug’s original class B drug status - the same level as amphetamines.

A spokeswoman for the charity Drugscope said any further decision about the classification of cannabis “must be based on scientific evidence and not political reasons”. The emerging evidence on the risk the drug posed to mental health was “not conclusive by any means”.

She added there was also no evidence that downgrading cannabis to a class C drug, the same level as anabolic steroids and prescription antibiotics, had encouraged more people to try it.

She said: “The most recent Department of Health survey found cannabis usage has dropped among 11 to 15-year-olds and stabilised among older teenagers.”

A spokeswoman for the charity Addaction said while further reclassification in light of new medical evidence should not be ruled out, the decision must not be influenced by “hysteria”.

She said: “It is about creating a balanced response based on knowledge rather than an hysterical response based on assumptions and moral arguments.”

A spokesman for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation added: “It is to all the major parties’ great shame that rather than engaging in substantive debate, they have chosen to use the issue as a political football. We can only hope that by the next election this crude electioneering will be replaced by a more mature and rational debate on prohibition and its alternatives.”

Earlier today the prime minister told GMTV that the downgrading of cannabis had sent out “the wrong message” to young people about the drug’s legal status and safety.

In another interview ahead of tomorrow’s general election, Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there was emerging medical evidence that cannabis was potentially more harmful than had been previously thought.

An inquiry launched by the home secretary, Charles Clarke, into links between cannabis use and mental health problems is ongoing, and Mr Blair said he was waiting for its results.

The government’s decision to reclassify the drug was made after advice from the advisory council on the misuse of drugs and after a controversial pilot scheme by police in Lambeth, south London.

Some leading police officers and drugs charities said it allowed police to better target resources at fighting harder drugs. 


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