Tories highlight cannabis dangers in drug blueprint

The health risks of cannabis are so great that it should now be reclassified as a class B drug, carrying much greater penalties for possession and trafficking, says David Cameron's new blueprint for dealing with Britain's growing addiction problems.

The health risks of cannabis are so great that it should now be reclassified as a class B drug, carrying much greater penalties for possession and trafficking, says David Cameron's new blueprint for dealing with Britain's growing addiction problems.

The Tory leader has been convinced by emerging evidence that a strong form of the drug, skunk, is causing an epidemic of mental health disorders. A report being published this week by a Conservative policy commission will confront the issue, recommending an upgrading of the drug to class B, as well as arguing the case for a complete transformation of addiction treatment in Britain.

This comes as Labour and the Tories go head to head on the issue of social breakdown, with both parties competing to show they have solutions that would strengthen families and prevent antisocial behaviour.

Ed Balls, the new Secretary of State for Schools, Children and the Family, is this week expected to announce new measures on parenting amid concern that too many children are being left to grow up in rootless and unstable environments.

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who heads the commission, will produce his report, entitled Breakthrough Britain, on Tuesday. He has looked at the costs of social breakdown and will propose a series of measures to tackle issues such as addiction, and also to strengthen the family and protect children.

One of the key measures will be a new 'treatment tax' on drink which would be used to provide an increase of £400m on the amount spent on treatment and recovery programmes for both alcoholics and addicts. The tax - which could see an increase of around three per cent on alcohol, adding 25p to the cost of a bottle of whisky - would not go straight into the Treasury as VAT and excise duty does, but would instead be set aside for medical treatment.

Speaking to The Observer yesterday, Duncan Smith said: 'We know now that cannabis is incredibly dangerous as a drug. For years people have been allowed to get away with this rather loose and wishy-washy idea that in the Sixties we took it and it didn't matter. But in the Sixties it was a much less potent drug, and now they have this stuff that is home-grown, which is at least 12 times more powerful.'

He added: 'The real effect is on young kids who take it. We regularly have kids who take it at the age of 11 or 12. If your brain is growing, you can kiss goodbye to that - by the time you are 16 or 17 you will be in a psychotic state. It is an enormously dangerous drug, but a lot of middle-class families don't see that.'

The government downgraded the drug to a class C in 2004 after concern that police were spending too much time arresting people for cannabis possession rather than focusing on tackling harder drugs. Although possession is still a criminal offence, in practice, this means that most adults found with the drug are let off with a warning,

A Home Office review in 2006 decided there was no need to change the classification, despite the changing medical advice. The Home Office has pointed to a decline in the number of people using cannabis which they believe is linked to the fact that they downgraded the drug.

However, it is undeniable that the health effects are worsening. In 2005, 10,000 11 to 17-year-olds were treated for cannabis use - 10 times the number a decade ago. Plants are increasingly cultivated to include high levels of the active ingredient of cannabis, THC, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, which encourages addiction and which causes a range of symptoms, from short-term memory loss, anxiety and panic attacks to triggering schizophrenia.

Duncan Smith said the slogan 'war on drugs... should be binned because that sends the wrong signals. It is not a war on drugs. It is about getting kids off drugs.'

Reclassification had to be linked to a proper treatment programme which offered people the chance of complete abstinence, rather than focusing on harm reduction.

The report suggests that too many people are now 'parked on substitute drugs' such as methadone, rather than being given the chance of complete rehabilitation.


Jo Revill and Nick Watt

The GuardianTramp

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