Parliament approves tighter cannabis law

The Government’s decision to return cannabis to a stricter drug classification has been approved by the House of Lords and will come into effect on 26 January.

The plan was announced earlier this year by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith who pointed to evidence of the drug’s harmful effects. It was passed by the Commons earlier this month.

The Government has gone ahead with the order to return to stiffer penalties for possessing or dealing cannabis in defiance of claims from its advisors that the weaker policy should remain.

During the Lords debate yesterday, former Home Secretary Lord Waddington supported the Government’s decision, but pointed out that ministers had been reckless by weakening the law in the first place.

He said: “They were happy to risk young people thinking that they could smoke [cannabis] without risk.”

However, he defended the Government’s decision to act against calls from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to leave the law as it is.

Referring to the stack of evidence relating cannabis use to mental health problems, Lord Waddington said that while the Government’s advisors were well-meaning, none of them were experts in psychosis, one of the main mental health problems linked to cannabis.

Many members of the council, he said, had links with bodies committed to the liberalisation of drugs policy.

He said, “all sorts of worthy people, whom I respect, are on the advisory council and speak with authority on, for instance, social attitudes and policing matters.

“However, they are certainly not all scientists and the advisory council is not a scientific advisory body.”

He added: “The Government should pay attention to what they say, but are perfectly entitled to say that there is other evidence which far outweighs the conclusions reached by the advisory council.”

Since the downgrade of cannabis in 2004 judges, police, parents and mental health experts have called for the move to be reversed because of the damage it has caused.

The availability of skunk – the strongest form of cannabis – has soared since the law was weakened. According to Home Office research, it now accounts for between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of samples seized by police, compared with 15 per cent six years ago.

In April senior police officers called for a return to tougher laws. The Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales argued that cannabis should be returned to class B to “…send out a clear message – especially to the vulnerable and the young – that cannabis is illegal and can be dangerous.”

They said: “The downgrading to Class ‘C’ sent out the wrong message, unintentionally suggesting that cannabis was harmless and legal.”

In May the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced that the Government would return cannabis to its class B status.

She said: “There is a compelling case for us to act now rather than risk the future health of young people.

“Where there is a clear and serious problem, but doubt about the harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public. I make no apology for that – I am not prepared to ‘wait and see’.”

A study lasting 27 years involving 50,000 people showed that smoking cannabis trebles the risk of a young person developing schizophrenia.

Cannabis-related admissions to mental hospitals have risen by 85% since Labour came to power according to Government figures.

There are now more than 22,000 people a year, almost half under the age of 18, being treated for cannabis addiction. In 1997 the number was 1,600.