A senior judge says there is little difference between skunk – a potent form of cannabis – and Class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.
Richard Hone QC made the comments as he sentenced a Vietnamese drug gang who ran what was reportedly the biggest cannabis farm in Europe.
Judge Hone said: “In my judgement, the distinction between cultivated skunk and class A drugs is not a large one”.
Speaking about the high content of THC – cannabis’ main active ingredient – in skunk, he said offences involving such substances “can, and in my view should be, punished more severely”.
The drug gang, who made around £120 million from their cannabis farms, used fake companies to hide their criminality and sold the plants on to others.
Speaking after the trial, the Crown Prosecution Service said the criminals’ “conspiracy” involved the production of skunk “on a truly industrial and unprecedented scale”.
According to drugs group DrugScope, skunk is being grown in significant quantities in Britain, with growers claiming the market is self-sufficient.
Cannabis is a Class B drug in the UK carrying penalties of up to 14 years in prison for production.
In 2012 a major study in New Zealand revealed that teenagers who regularly use cannabis could be permanently impairing their mental development and lowering their IQ.
Researchers found that heavy users who started regularly taking the drug before the age of 18 suffered an average eight-point decline in IQ between adolescence and adulthood.
They were also found to have more problems with their attention span and memory than non-users.
Dr Madeline Meier, who led the study, said the message was clear that the drug “is not harmless, particularly for adolescents”.
In the UK last month, Nick Clegg expressed the “need for a royal commission in Britain” on drugs, following a trip to Colombia.
Later, UKIP leader Nigel Farage backed the Deputy Prime Minister’s stance on drugs policy.
But Kathy Gyngell, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, has warned against softer drugs laws.
She said legalisation would actually “normalise” drug taking.