Confusion over whether cannabis is legal has led to the drug being smoked openly on Northern Ireland's streets, a House of Commons report has claimed.
Cannabis remains illegal
The Northern Ireland Select Committee called for the government to emphasise the dangers of cannabis and highlight that a clampdown on the drug remained a high priority for law enforcement.
When it was announced cannabis was reclassified in Northern Ireland last July from a Class B to a Class C drug, the then-Secretary of State John Reid denied it meant the government had softened its attitude towards the drug.
The report on the illegal drugs trade in the province found there was still "widespread confusion" among the public about the status of cannabis.
The select committee's chairman, Michael Mates, said on Tuesday that cannabis remained "overwhelmingly the most widely available drug" in the province.
"We have heard that cannabis is being smoked openly on the streets and in pubs and clubs in Northern Ireland because people believe it is now legal," Mr Mates said.
CANNABIS STILL ILLEGAL
Declassified to Class C drug
Up to two years prison for possession
Maximum 14 years for trafficking
"The government and the Northern Ireland Executive must intensify their efforts to communicate the fact that the use of cannabis remains illegal and harmful."
The select committee said demand for cannabis was being exploited by organised criminals and paramilitaries who were using the profits to support other illegal
Dr John Reid said at the time of the declassification that cannabis remained an illegal drug.
"Those who are convicted of cannabis-related offences can expect to face the full force of the law," Dr Reid said last July.
"Cannabis will be reclassified as a Class C drug on the basis of scientific and medical evidence, but those found guilty of possessing it could face up to two years imprisonment.
"Trafficking cannabis will still attract a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail. Because of the seriousness of this crime, I welcome the decision to extend this penalty to all Class C drug trafficking offences."
The committee welcomed this increased penalty but said such an action on its own would not be "a sufficient counterbalance to the opportunities for extending criminal activity which the reclassification may provide".
Figures from the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland showed cannabis accounted for two thirds of all drugs seizures in 2001.
Those who are convicted of cannabis related offences can expect to face the full force of the law
Ecstasy tablets were found in 16% of all seizures, prescription drugs made up eight per cent, heroin made up five per cent, amphetamines
four per cent and cocaine one per cent.
Mr Mates said that unlike the rest of Britain, hard drugs were not as commonly used in Northern Ireland, and the committee recommended that the government should bear this in mind.
Des Browne, the Northern Ireland Office Minister with responsibility for drugs issues, welcomed the select committee's approval of the reclassification of cannabis.
"Cannabis is still a harmful drug that can cause psychological dependency and depression and our treatment agencies will continue to see people suffering from its effects," he said.
"Smoking cannabis, whether on its own or mixed with tobacco, contributes to our high incidence of premature deaths and avoidable illness."