Sunday, January 20, 2008

U.K Considers Tougher Pot Law

Health officials claim 500 hospitalizations per week.

In a reversal of previous policy, Prime Minister Gordon Brown signaled his likely approval of a move to stiffen marijuana enforcement by upgrading cannabis to so-called Class B drug status. If approved by Brown’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the reclassification would mean a prison term of up to five years for possession of marijuana.

Meanwhile, the London Daily Telegraph, citing high-level health authorities, claimed that official figures showed a 50 per cent increase in the number of people requiring medical attention after cannabis use. “Almost 500 adults and children are treated in hospitals and clinics every week for the effects of cannabis,” the article claimed.

The Telegraph went on to assert that the figures “proved Labour’s decision to reclassify cannabis in January 2004, which made the penalties for its possession less severe, was badly mistaken and had sent out the wrong signals about it being a ‘soft’ drug.”

Previously, the British government under Tony Blair had downgraded cannabis to a Class C drug in 2004, putting it in the same group with steroids and prescription antidepressants. Class B includes amphetamines and cocaine.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, in a letter to the Advisory Council, said that “there is real public concern about the potential mental health effects of cannabis use, in particular the use of stronger forms of the drug, commonly known as skunk.”

Last July, Mr. Brown explained his intentions: “Why I want to upgrade cannabis and make it more a drug that people worry about is that we don’t want to send out a message, just like with alcohol, to teenagers that we accept these things.”

DrugScope, a British drug policy organization, sent a letter to the Telegraph opposing the move, charging that the Telegraph had misrepresented figures given out by the Minister of State for Public Health. “We have ascertained that the figures supplied by the Minister do not relate to actual hospital admissions,” said the DrugScope letter. “The figures instead relate to those who have come forward to community-based drug treatment services seeking some form of help, advice or treatment relating to their use of cannabis.” Drugscope’s analysis of the figures yielded a national figure of 14 hospital admissions per week. “This is 14 admissions too many,” DrugScope wrote, “but still way below the figure quoted.”

The debate harkens back to a mental health story run by the London Daily Mail in August, which claimed that smoking a single joint of marijuana increases the risk of developing schizophrenia by 41 per cent—an erroneous statistic that was also hotly contested by various U.K. drug experts.

The tighter pot laws envisioned by the Prime Minister dovetail neatly with the current emphasis by U.S. Drug Czar John P. Walters on teenage cannabis use--a stance that has enraged many U.S. officials, including Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley, according to a recent, well-researched article in Rolling Stone. “What I’ve never understood,” said Grassley, “is why they took marijuana so much more seriously that methamphetamine, when methamphetamine is a much more serious drug.”

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