TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
Source: Herald & Post
Pub date: Thursday, 29 January 2004
Pub Art: Turning over a new leaf
Author: SIMON LAMBERT
Turning over a new leaf
BRITAIN'S laws on cannabis changed this week, as the controversial drug was downgraded from a Class B to Class C substance. But confusion reigns about.how people in possession of the weed will be treated by police and the move has sparked a furious row between the pro and anti cannabis lobbies. Here, Herald & Post reporter SIMON LAMBERT examines all sides of the story.
New laws on cannabis seem to be confusing those for and against...
WHEN a government changes a law it usually expects someone to be pleased about it.
But David Blunkett's downgrading of cannabis from a Class B to Class C drug - which came into force this week has achieved a rare distinction by seemingly satisfying neither the pro nor anti-marijuana lobbies.
While 'legalise the weed' campaigners argue the changes make too little difference, their opponents claim Britain is on the verge of a tidal wave of dope-related mental health problems.
About the only thing the two sides do agree on is the problem of exactly how reclassification will he enforced an issue clouded in a haze foggier than Keith Richards' tour bus.
The muddle forced a last ditch government attempt to clarify the laws with a £1 million advertising campaign to remind people cannabis was still illegal.
And to combat confusion Bedfordshire Police have issued a stark warning that they are not about to go soft on people caught with cannabis.
Spokeswoman Jo Hobbs said; "It's still an offence to be in possession of it, whether it's Class B or Class C, if you're caught with it you'll be in trouble.
"All our officers have been fully briefed and if they bump into someone smoking it on the street they'll be arrested.
Every scenario is judged on its merits and if someone is found with enough to hint they're dealing they'll be charged.
With an estimated 40 per cent of the population having smoked marijuana chances are you will know someone who has, or still does.
Public perception has moved on since the mid-2Oth century heyday of reefer-madness-style films, and nowadays the stoner' is a stereotypical figure of fun rather than a bug-eyed madman.
But despite a consensus that cannabis is a relatively low priority compared to clamping down on hard drugs such as heroin and crack, senior medical figures have sounded a warning in the run-up to reclassification
Psychiatrists, the British Medical Association and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens have all said reclassification sends out the wrong message.
The concerns surround the massive increase in the potency of marijuana being sold during the last decade.
Most cannabis sold now is in a herbal form known as skunk'. Often grown in Britain, and crossbred to be ten times stronger than regular crops.
And mental health professionals have warned this super-strength cannabis is leading to a rise in schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. Chief executive of mental health charity Rethink Cliff Prior said: "There's a strongly-held view that cannabis is risk-free, reflected in the astonishingly high rates of use amongst young people as the drug of choice.
"Now there is a rapidly growing body of evidence showing cannabis can trigger schizophrenia in people already at risk."
But while anti-cannabis campaigners have seized on the mental health issue, pro-legalisation supporters argue legalising the drug would allow greater control.
Don Barnard of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance said: "At no point has anybody said there is a proven causal link.
"What has been highlighted is if someone has an underlying mental health problem smoking large amounts of cannabis can exacerbate it - there's more risk of this if it's illegal. Legalise it and you can control it with the full protection of the law."
For most the issue is less clear cut and Luton North MP Kelvin Hopkins reflects many people's feelings by saying new evidence made him reassess his view.
He said: "My instinct used to be to say let's legalise it, but recent research drawing a strong link between cannabis and mental health problems is very worrying. The statistics suggest there could be a mental health time bomb and if that's the case we need to worry about it. We've got to wait and see how the new law works and make some judgments on it.
"What's most important though is we put out a strong message to people that it is implicated in schizophrenia and appeal to people's common sense."
DON BARNARD RD is the press officer for the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, a registered British political party dedicated to the legalisation of cannabis.
The LCA help independent candidates, who agree to support the cannabis cause, to stand in local elections.
The party argue reclassification is a step in the right direction, but the only workable solution is complete legalisation
He said: "Reclassification is an illusion of change.
"If it's carried out in the spirit it's meant to be there will be a vast reduction in the number of people getting a criminal record - but it's unlikely this will happen.
"We support the full legalisation of cannabis because then it can be controlled and we can protect the small minority who have problems with it.
"There have been a lot of stories recently about mental health concerns, but at no point has it been said that cannabis alone causes the problems.
"What has been highlighted is if there is an underlying mental health problem smoking large amounts of cannabis can exacerbate it - there's more risk of this if it's illegal.
"Legalise it and you can control it with the full protection of the law.
"Legalisation will not encourage more people to smoke it, as let's face it anybody who is going to smoke it will smoke it anyway.
"There is so much misinformation out there, we need to get on with it and actually make a change."
ANDREW SELOUS is Conservative MP for South West Beds, and believes the downgrading of cannabis sends out the wrong message.
He said the Tory party will reverse the change in the law if they are elected.
He said; "There are many senior medical people who are convinced of strong links between sustained cannabis use and mental illness.
"What alerted me to this was speaking to mental health carers and they know their children better than anyone. They've seen them before they were involved with smoking cannabis and it was certainly their view it was instrumental in the problems.
"The message reclassification is giving to young people is cannabis is on its way to being legalised and this sends out the wrong signal.
"The fact £1 million (UKP) has been spent at the last minute to explain the change shows how the policy is in a muddle.
"We're talking about bright, capable young people who have become shadows of their former selves and we need to protect them.
CANNABIS has been downgraded from a Class B to Class C drug, but people can still be arrested for possessing any amount.
Offenders judged to have an amount consistent with personal use will have it confiscated and face a verbal warning; an official caution or a court summons which could lead to a £500 fine or two years imprisonment.
Police have been instructed to arrest any under 18 year-old's caught with the drug.
People caught dealing marijuana could face five years in jail. Those found driving under the influence of cannabis face penalties similar to those caught drink driving.
Luton's pubs and clubs have sent out a stark warning that anyone caught using cannabis on their premises will have the drug confiscated and the police will be called.