Today the House of Lords debates the proposal from the Home Office to reclassify cannabis from class C to class B. In recommending this change to parliament, the government has rejected the explicit advice of its appointed experts, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for the first time in nearly 30 years.
In its last report, produced at the request of the home secretary, the ACMD clearly recommended - for the third time in the last six years - that cannabis remains a class C drug, and did so after examining all the available and latest evidence on short- and long-term health risks, as well as social harms, public attitudes and policing priorities.
After setting out its conclusions on the health risks of cannabis and concerns regarding greater potency, the report made clear recommendations for improved drugs education and greater efforts to tackle drug dealing. However, it concluded that the evidence was against greater criminalisation of possession. The impact of parliament agreeing to the government's policy could be very damaging. Cannabis use has fallen in recent years, especially following its downgrading to class C in 2004, and it is obviously unwise to risk reversing that trend. The classification system must be credible - reclassification would send out an ambiguous message about the dangers of current class B drugs.
Even more importantly, the move would be a sad departure from the welcome trend - established after the Phillips report into the BSE disaster - of public policy following expert scientific advice unless there is new evidence. Baroness Meacher has tabled an amendment calling for a postponement of any reclassification pending a further ACMD review in two years. We urge peers to maintain the trend to evidence-based policy-making by supporting the amendment.
Dr Evan Harris MP Lib Dem science spokesman, David King Former government chief scientific adviser, Professor Michael Rawlins Chair, ACMD 1998-2008, (Lord) Robert May Former government chief scientific adviser, Phil Willis MP Chair, Science select committee, Professor Gabriel Horne Chair, Academy of Medical Science working group on addiction, Professor Colin Blakemore Member, UK Drug Policy Commission; former director, Medical Research Council, Tracey Brown Director, Sense about Science, Dr Leslie King Member, ACMD, Ruth Runciman Former member, ACMD
Tuesday November 25 2008
Scientists attack plan to upgrade cannabis
Ian Sample, science correspondent guardian.co.uk, Tuesday November 25 2008 00.01 GMT The Guardian, Tuesday November 25 2008 Article history
Government plans to overrule its own drug advisers and reclassify cannabis as a more dangerous substance are attacked by leading scientists and MPs in a letter to the Guardian today.
The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, intends to move cannabis from class C to class B, where it will sit alongside amphetamines, such as speed, and barbiturates. The move comes despite repeated recommendations from the government's drug advisers that its classification should not be upgraded.
The proposal, which is due to be voted on by peers today, is described as "extremely damaging" in the letter, whose signatories include two former chief scientists, Sir David King and Lord May; Professor Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council; and Sir Gabriel Horn, chair of the Academy of Medical Science's working group on brain science, addiction and drugs.
The letter warns that changing the classification of cannabis risks reversing a downwards trend in use of the drug since 2004 and undermines public health messages about the more serious dangers of class B drugs. It urges peers to block the change of classification by voting to defer the move until 2010.
"In recommending this change to parliament the government has rejected the explicit advice of its appointed experts, the advisory council on the misuse of drugs, for the first time in its history," the experts write.
The Lib Dem science spokesman Evan Harris said the letter demonstrated the anger in the science community over the government's treatment of expert scientific advice. "It may be that it will take resignations in order for ministers to understand that they can't ignore the evidence and keep scientists on board," he said.
The government's advisory council on misuse of drugs (ACMD) has reviewed the classification of cannabis three times since 2002. Its most recent report, which was commissioned last July amid concerns that highly potent "skunk" was becoming widely available, found that while stronger homegrown strains of the drug dominated the market there was only weak evidence of a link with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
The report called for tougher action against cannabis farms, a crackdown on shops selling cannabis paraphernalia and a renewed public health campaign. Scientists on the council warned that reclassifying cannabis was unlikely to curb usage, but risked increasing the chances of vulnerable people getting a criminal record.
In a last-ditch attempt to block the Lords from approving the government's plans, Baroness Meacher has tabled an amendment that would postpone a decision on the drug for two years, pending another review by the ACMD.
In May Smith told the Commons that she had to take public perceptions and the pressures on policing into account when making a final decision on cannabis.