In 2004, the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, responding to the recommendations of its own advisory commission, downgraded marijuana from a Class B to a Class C drug and began treating most pot possession cases with on-the-spot warnings instead of arrest. Now, in an act of political expediency against a background of tabloid hysteria over links between marijuana and mental illness, the Blair government has proclaimed that it may well reclassify marijuana back to Class B. Or maybe not.
In March, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, whose predecessor, David Blunkett, made the initial decision to downgrade marijuana, asked the government-appointed Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to revisit its earlier recommendations, a task it completed in November. Home Secretary Clarke has the new recommendations in hand, but has not divulged whether the ACMD is recommending a return to Class B. He has said he will announce his decision any day now.
If marijuana is returned to Class B, smokers and possessors will be subject to arrest instead of warnings, and sellers will face up to 14 years in prison, as opposed to five years under Class C. That puts some 3.6 million pot users in England and Wales at risk of more serious legal consequences. In 2004, before reclassification occurred, some 13,000 Britons were arrested for marijuana possession; last year, that number dropped to 600.
Clarke hinted strongly last week that he favored returning marijuana to Class B. In an interview with the Times of London, he said he is "very worried" about links between marijuana and mental illness. He added that the change in the law had confused people and that the general public suffered from an "alarming" lack of knowledge about the health dangers of drug use.
"Whatever happens after this," said Clarke, "let me reveal one recommendation of the advisory committee, which they make very, very strongly, which is a renewed commitment to public education about the potential affects of the consumption of cannabis, and the legal status of cannabis. That is well made, and I will accept it. People do not understand the impact of the consumption of cannabis well enough, and what the legal consequences of consuming cannabis are."
While youths behaving as if marijuana were legal and brazen street vendors in places like Brixton caused grumbling among police and segments of the general public and chattering classes, it appears that a combination of political one-upmanship with the opposition Conservatives and carefully cultivated concern over mental health and marijuana is driving Clarke and the Blair government. Against a trickle of scientific studies finding limited associations between marijuana and mental illness amplified by a tabloid press into a drumbeat of hair-raising stories with titles like "Cannabis 'Caused My Son's Illness'" and "Cannabis Brain Fear," Clarke raises his concerns.
The current wave of Reefer Madness revolves around research purporting to show that marijuana can cause psychotic reactions in genetically predisposed populations and that it is linked to the appearance or early onset of schizophrenia. But Trevor Turner, consultant psychiatrist at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, and vice president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, succinctly laid out the problems with those claims to the Independent. "First, there has been no increase in schizophrenia in this country despite a massive increase in cannabis smoking. Second, there is no evidence that cannabis-growing populations such as Jamaica have a higher incidence of psychosis. Third, you can show an association [between the drug and the illness] but you can't show a cause."
Even Robin Murray, professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, who has sounded the loudest warnings about cannabis, downplayed tabloid-inspired fears. "It is obviously ridiculous to say everyone who smokes cannabis is going to become psychotic. Even in our studies of adolescents, 90% of those who smoked cannabis did not go on to develop psychosis." Murray, in fact, told the Independent pot should be legalized. "By not legalizing it you bring the law into disrepute among the young and you criminalize an activity that is harmless for the great majority of people. It is poisoning society."
"It is all badly reported nonsense," said the Transform Drug Policy Foundation's Steve Rolles of the mental health claims. "It comes in cycles. The 'new evidence' isn't really anything startling: If young people smoke tons of the strong stuff, they are at higher risk of some mental health problems -- no surprise -- and this is fully acknowledged by the ACMD in its initial report. This is really just part of the ongoing research and it happens to be in the media spotlight because of the political fuss over reclassification."
But if even the scientists most concerned about marijuana do not want to see it reclassified, Labor still had to worry about the Conservatives. In the run-up to last year's election, both parties battled for the prized "tough on crime" sobriquet. Under pressure on the right, Labor could burnish its credentials by turning the screws on pot-smokers. But this week, new Conservative leader David Cameron, who has publicly acknowledged past drug use himself, took the oomph of out that tactic by saying the Tories would not attack Labor for leaving cannabis at Class C.
"This is all political smoke and mirrors," said Transform's Rolles. "Before the election, the government was scared of being called soft on drugs, so it referred cannabis classification back to the ACMD, which is set up to advise on such issues, and which made the initial recommendation to reclassify cannabis to a Class C drug in 2004."
Now, after raising such a public hubbub over the possibility of reclassification and leaving Labor open to ridicule for its u-turn on pot policy, it seems likely that Clarke will have to make a u-turn on his u-turn, thus coming full circle back to where he started.
"The information we have, as well as some leaks, suggests the ACMD has not called for a re-reclassification," Rolles said. "If, as seems likely, this turns out to be true, it seems very unlikely that they will reverse because it would be going against expert advice and appear transparently political," he wagered.
"If the government is stupid enough to do it anway, they will get hammered by the press and the public alike. The move to downgrade cannabis was seen as sensible and progressive and enjoyed public support, except for the usual suspects," Rolles told DRCNet. "The problem was poor information and a bungled implementation that left the public confused over exactly what the changes really meant."
"A decision to reclassify would fly in the face of the recommendations of the government's own advisory council," said Davies. "Very heavy use of cannabis can damage those people who may be genetically prone to mental illness but very heavy use of whisky will kill you."