Experts warn of mixed messages on cannabis

Tougher laws on cannabis come into effect today, but magistrates are warning that the penalties attached to them are not strict enough.

The Government announced that cannabis would be restored to class B in May last year, after it was moved down to class C in 2004.

But it was later decided that cannabis users will not be arrested until they have been caught three times – a softer approach than is usually taken with other class B drugs.

The first offence will result in a warning, and the second will incur an £80 fine, called a Penalty Notice of Disorder (PND).

The Magistrates’ Association say this will undermine the reclassification: “The singling-out of possession of cannabis for disposal through a PND sets it aside from the other Class B drugs and sends an unacceptable signal to those who use it.

“The significant campaign by the Magistrates’ Association and other agencies to reclassify the drug will be undermined if this is implemented.”

Commenting on the fine system, the Association’s deputy chair, John Fassenfelt, asked: “What is that telling the youngster on the street?”

“Is it telling them well, you can have cannabis, it’s not so serious as other Class B drugs.

“It’s a dual justice system. If you smoke or take another Class B drug you’ll be brought to court, if you take cannabis you’ll be given a fine. Where’s the justice in that?”

The decision to tighten up the cannabis law has been criticised by the Government’s drugs advisors, who had recommended against reclassification.

Professor David Nutt, the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said: “Some individuals do get unpleasant mental reactions but they are relatively small in number.”

He added: “There are potential risks of criminalising people who are using a drug which doesn’t harm other people, only themselves.”

However, police and mental health charities have welcomed the move.

Detective Chief Superintendent Andy West of Lincolnshire Police led the investigation into the murder of Stevie Barton, a student who was killed by paranoid cannabis user Marc Middlebrook in 2007.

He said downgrading cannabis “made it a lot easier for people to excuse their own bad behaviour”, and added that reclassification “will send out a message”.

He went on: “People are far more prone now to take cannabis, alcohol and other substances and get completely paralytic drunk and bombed out of their minds.

“It’s not right. We’ve all got to take some responsibility for our actions.”

Marjorie Wallace of mental health charity Sane said: “Cannabis, especially in its more toxic varieties, can double the chance of developing severe mental illness in a significant minority of people, particularly the young, whose brains are still developing.

“While we do not yet know the cause of psychotic illness, or the ways in which drugs such as cannabis may trigger breakdown, relapse, and worsen outcomes, we need to maintain a clear message that it is dangerous to the 10-20% of people who may be at risk but do not know it.”