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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 15:58 GMT
Medical advisers back cannabis reform
Cannabis smoker
Cannabis is smoked by millions in the UK
Cannabis should be downgraded to a Class C drug, a government-commissioned report has recommended.

If ministers accept the advice users could be free to smoke it in public without fear of arrest.

Medical experts at the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said the current classification of cannabis alongside substances like amphetamines was "disproportionate" to its harmfulness.

A decision on the recommendations will be made after a Home Affairs select committee report on drugs strategy and a review of a pilot project in Lambeth, south London. Both are due by Easter.


It is refreshing to have a Home Secretary who is at last willing to open up the debate on drugs

Drugscope

The prime minister's official spokesman said that while Home Secretary David Blunkett had said he was "minded" to re-classify cannabis "there are no plans for decriminalisation or legalisation".

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said downgrading or decriminalising cannabis would be an ill-thought out solution to a complex problem.

During a visit to Langdon College in Salford he said: "Anybody who knows about the difficulties in communities, about young people who are trying drugs and moving on to harder drugs, knows it is far more complex than that."

'Few health risks'

ACMD chairman Professor Sir Michael Rawlins said his report was not saying cannabis was harmless.

"Cannabis is associated with some risks of health but the council concludes that these are less than the risks posed by other Class B drugs such as amphetamine," he said.

The report found the use of cannabis, which has risen sharply over the past 20 years, does not cause any major health problems and rarely causes serious illness in previously healthy people.

However, even occasional use posed significant dangers for people with mental health problems including schizophrenia and those with poor circulation or heart conditions.

But both groups were still at greater risk from amphetamines.

The report said it was impossible to say if cannabis users became addicted or whether they were likely to progress to harder drugs.

'Refreshing'

The findings were welcomed by Roger Howard, chief executive of the charity DrugScope.

He said: "It is refreshing to have a Home Secretary who is at last willing to open up the debate on drugs and consider moving towards a more logical and pragmatic drugs policy."

Man smoking cannabis
Cannabis users would no longer face prosecution
Mr Howard rejected claims it would lead to an increase in drug use and said he hoped the report would help end prosecution of people found with small amounts of cannabis.

But Paul Betts, father of 18-year-old ecstasy victim Leah Betts, said the government had reneged on its promises to be hard on drugs.

He said: "This is the start of the slippery slope. They are scared to say it's dangerous."

The publication of the report follows last weekend's vote by the Liberal Democrats to support the legalisation of cannabis.

Delegates also voted to end imprisonment for the possession of any illegal drug - including heroin and cocaine - and backed the downgrading of ecstasy from a Class A to a Class B drug.

Drugs monitor

David Blunkett commissioned the ACMD study last October.

The ACMD monitors the state of drugs use and misuse in the UK and was set up under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Drugs are classified as Class A, B or C according to harm they may cause.

Cannabis is a Class B drug, the same category as other substances including amphetamines and growth hormones.

Recent studies suggest that cannabis use has risen sharply since the early seventies, especially among those in the 20 to 24 age group.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"There are three classifications for drugs"
See also:

09 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Lib Dems back radical drug policy
23 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Q & A: Cannabis reclassification
13 Jan 02 | UK
Cannabis: the facts
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