Pubdate: Fri, 23 Jan 2004
Source: Herald, The (UK)
Copyright: 2004 The Herald
Contact:  http://www.theherald.co.uk/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/189
Author: Neil McKeganey
Note: Neil McKeganey is Professor of Drug Misuse Research at the University
of Glasgow.

MAYBE WE'VE GOT IT WRONG

If truth is the first casualty of war, then confusion, it seems, is the 
first consequence of changing the drug laws. By the end of next week the 
law relating to cannabis will be changed as the drug moves from class B to 
class C under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

When the home secretary, David Blunkett, announced the change last year, 
what he seemed to be saying was that people in the UK would no longer be 
arrested for possessing small amounts of cannabis for personal use. By 
making cannabis possession for personal use a non-arrestable offence, the 
police would, he argued, be able to focus on the two drugs  heroin and 
cocaine  causing the most harm. So far so good, but that unfortunately is 
where the clarity ends.

In the period following that announcement, Mr Blunkett accepted the advice 
from, among others, senior police officers that losing the power of arrest 
in relation to cannabis could be a step too far in changing our drug laws. 
The resultant bill that will come into effect at the end of the month 
allows the police to retain the power of arrest for smoking cannabis but 
expresses the clear expectation that this will only happen in particular 
circumstances, such as smoking cannabis in the company of children or in 
the presence of a police officer.

Even in its diluted form, this still represents the biggest change in our 
drugs laws in the past 20 years. But what will this change mean for 
Scotland? One answer to that question is: not very much. The Association of 
Chief Police Officers in Scotland has emphasised that it will be business 
as usual and that people found in possession of cannabis will still be 
subject to arrest.

To some extent, the rather luke-warm reception that reclassification seems 
to be receiving in Scotland is as one might expect, given that the 
legislative change is being imposed on Scotland from the Westminster 
Parliament. It is an entirely open question whether the Scottish Parliament 
would have backed this change had it had responsibility for drug-abuse 
matters. Setting the politics aside, is reclassification something we 
should welcome in Scotland or be alarmed about?

There will undoubtedly be those who applaud this change and regard it as 
long overdue. There will be others who predict that any relaxation in the 
drug laws will undoubtedly lead to an increase in cannabis use. At the 
moment it is impossible to say what the outcome will be, but we are not 
going to have to wait very long now to find out. Scotland has one of the 
highest levels of cannabis use in Europe, with around 50% of 15-year-olds 
having smoked the drug and around 25% smoking the drug on a regular basis. 
In the light of those figures, it is arguable whether we should be doing 
anything which might further increase the level of cannabis use when what 
we should be doing is increasing our efforts at drug prevention.

Concern over the rescheduling of cannabis, however, is not simply a matter 
of worrying about the possibility that the overall numbers of cannabis 
users may increase. While cannabis is by no means as dangerous a drug as 
heroin or cocaine, there is growing evidence that even infrequent users of 
the drug face a one in 10 chance of becoming dependent and that this figure 
may be as high as one in three for those who are regularly using it. We 
also know that cannabis consumption increases the risk of lung and throat 
cancers.

Recent research has shown that in high dosages, and to some extent in low 
dosage as well, cannabis can lead to a range of psychotic symptoms, 
including confusion, amnesia, delusions, hallucinations, anxiety and 
agitation, and that these effects may be particularly pronounced in young 
people. Cannabis has also been shown to have a detrimental impact on 
adolescents' educational performance and while the effect might be small, 
in the case of those young people whose educational performance is already 
somewhat marginal, the negative impact of cannabis could be significant.

On this basis, then, even if the overall number of cannabis users remained 
stable we could still see a dramatic increase in the number of people 
experiencing some of the adverse effects of cannabis use if the frequency 
of their use were to increase in the face of the reclassification. In the 
light of these kinds of adverse effects, was the home secretary right or 
wrong to go ahead with reclassification? My own view is that if any of 
these adverse outcomes increases as a result of reclassification, then the 
decision to go ahead with moving cannabis from B to C has to look like the 
wrong decision. Indeed, there will be those who say that in the face of 
even the possibility that any of these adverse outcomes may increase, the 
decision on reclassification looks highly regrettable.

It is not simply the reclassification of cannabis, though, which might 
cause concern. Mr Blunkett's stated intention of focusing on heroin and 
cocaine might also engender a sense of gloom on the part of those working 
in the drug prevention field. Why is this? For the simple reason that 
hardly anybody starts their drug-using career with heroin or cocaine. What 
they start with, even if they don't progress to these harder drugs, is 
cannabis.

If one is going to focus attention on heroin and cocaine, then one is in 
effect switching attention from the start of people's drug-using career to 
the point where their drug use is already well developed. It is in this 
sense that the focus on heroin and cocaine may be poorly received by those 
working in the field of drug prevention.

Aside from these issues there is the matter of how much police time will be 
saved by reclassification. On the face of it one might assume that the 
saving could be considerable. However, under the amended laws the police 
are still going to have to confiscate the drug when it is found in people's 
possession, they are going to have to determine whether the amount of 
cannabis involved is indicative of personal use rather than intent to 
supply, they are going to have to issue a warning in cases of personal use 
and, as with all things to do with the police, they are going to have to 
record every element of this process in minute detail.

As a result, the change in classification may save only small amounts of 
police time and may even, in some cases, increase the time involved in 
processing cannabis possession. Probably the only way of really saving 
police time in connection with cannabis would be to make the drug fully 
legal, which is plainly not what is being done in Scotland or elsewhere 
within the UK.

Finally, there is the issue of those young people who choose not to use 
cannabis. Recently, researchers at Glasgow University interviewed children 
who had declined the offer of illegal drugs. This research found that some 
children were turning down drug offers by referring to the fact that the 
substances involved were illegal. While reclassification does not legalise 
cannabis in Scotland, it brings legalisation that much closer and in a 
small but significant way we may have made the task of turning down those 
drug offers that much more difficult.
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