In the midst of a parliamentary election campaign where drugs have become a key issue, the Labor government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair moved last weekend to reconsider its reclassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug. Class C drugs are those controlled substances deemed least dangerous under British law and include steroids and some anti-depressants. Under the reclassification, which has been in effect for slightly more than a year, cannabis users in most circumstances now face only ticketing, not arrest.
In a March 19 letter from Home Secretary Charles Clarke to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is charged with reviewing drug scheduling, the Blair government asked the council to review recent evidence about the harmfulness of cannabis. In the last few weeks, both the tabloid press and the opposition Conservative Party have paid much attention to several studies allegedly linking cannabis to the development of psychosis or schizophrenia. Clarke's letter highlighted those concerns. He also asked the council to look into high-potency marijuana, or "skunk," which seems to be the preferred British term.
The Conservatives and third-party Liberal Democrats immediately made political hay of the move, with Conservative leader Michael Howard calling it a retreat and a reversal. The Tories have announced plans to return cannabis to Schedule B if elected, and shadow home secretary David Davis told reporters Clarke's move showed the Blair government was admitting that downgrading cannabis was "the wrong decision."
"The downgrading of cannabis was a dreadful decision which sends out mixed messages to children about the dangers of drugs," said Davis. "The government will now have to clear up the mess of its hasty and ill-thought through decision on cannabis which Charles Clarke himself has admitted could lead people into harder drugs."
Liberal Democrats piled on, even though the party doesn't see much of a problem with cannabis. Home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said police should concentrate on "very serious drugs" and devote fewer resources to going after pot smokers. But Oaten also expressed a willingness to reconsider reclassification as well. "If evidence changes and it is clear that there are more harmful aspects of cannabis," Oaten said, "it makes sense to review the law and that is why we would support any changes based on evidence that the home secretary is considering."
The Blair government naturally denied it had changed its mind on marijuana. The move was not a policy reversal; drug classification is "under constant review," the Home Office said. "It makes sense that government policy reflects scientific findings and is kept up to date."
The findings that have provided the political cover for the classification review include a study by New Zealand researchers published earlier this month that drew links between adolescent marijuana smoking and the risk of developing mental illness and a Dutch study published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year that found that "cannabis use moderately increases the risks of psychotic symptoms in young people but has a much stronger effect in those with evidence of predisposition for psychosis."
But while those studies have been the stuff of banner headlines in the tabloid press and have provided fodder for anti-drug campaigners, the more sensational readings of their findings are not supported -- even by the researchers who did the studies. The professor who did the New Zealand study, for instance, told the New Zealand Herald: "These are not huge increases in risk and nor should they be, because cannabis is by no means the only thing that will determine if you suffer these symptoms."
And Professor Jim van Os, co-author of the Dutch study, told the Guardian newspaper that his finding that cannabis could trigger psychosis in a small minority of people was a good reason to legalize the drug, not ban it. If cannabis were legal, van Os said, the government could more effectively provide advice and information and control higher-potency varieties such as the dreaded "skunk."
Cannabis was downgraded in January 2004 on the recommendation of the same Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that is now being asked to reconsider. While marijuana was "unquestionably harmful," the panel found, it was much less so than other Class B drugs. But British police and politicians have complained in recent months that reclassification is causing "confusion" among Britons, some of whom now believe the drug is legal, as well as leading to open pot-smoking in some areas.
The election season move was criticized by the non-profit drug think-tank DrugScope, whose director, Martin Barnes, diplomatically called it "surprising." While DrugScope supported the constant monitoring of drug classifications and reviews of new evidence, said Barnes in a statement, "when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended reclassification, it fully considered the evidence that cannabis can trigger mental health problems. It is surprising that the government is asking for a review so soon after reclassification. Available evidence suggests that cannabis usage amongst young people has remained stable since reclassification, and has even fallen amongst 11-15 year olds," said Barnes. "The latest research on the potency of European cannabis concluded that claims for soaring THC levels were exaggerated and not substantiated."
The bottom line for DrugScope was that the current classification of cannabis is appropriate. "There are obvious concerns about the links between cannabis and mental health," Barnes noted. "Cannabis is not a harmless drug, but classification reflects relative harms."