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Cannabis and the law

The Herald, Editorial, 23rd August 2005

IT is all too easy to dismiss cannabis as a relatively safe drug that does little harm to users or society. It is not on the same scale as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and other hard drugs that blight and destroy lives. It does not have the frighteningly addictive properties of these substances, nor does it have the power to kill through a single overdose or adverse reaction. Yet there is increasing evidence that cannabis does significant damage. Several recent scientific papers show the likelihood of developing psychosis, depression and schizophrenia increases significantly among users of this drug.

A report published in the British Medical Journal has also claimed cannabis smoking could be responsible for up to 30,000 deaths a year, due to a cocktail of 4000 chemicals that damage the lungs, heart, blood vessels and increase the risk of cancer. The rise in the number of children caught selling and carrying cannabis and other drugs must therefore be taken very seriously.

Figures obtained by The Herald show an increase of 13% in the number of arrests of young people under 16 for drug-related offences, and it is being blamed on the Westminster government's decision to reclassify cannabis. It is exactly this age group that is at greatest risk from the drug. Psychiatric experts in Britain claim that children who start taking cannabis at 15 increase their risk of psychosis in later life by 450%. For those who start just three years later, that figure drops to 60%.

Cannabis was reclassified because ranking it alongside amphetamines and barbiturates made little sense, according to the scientific evidence in 2002 when David Blunkett, the then home secretary, won MPs' backing for the plan. It was hoped that making it a class-C drug would allow police to concentrate their efforts on more dangerous drugs, without legalising it completely. Science moves quickly, however, and much has changed since that time. So much so that Mr Blunkett's successor, Charles Clarke, has now decided to review the decision. That is to be welcomed. It is also a chance to address the particular problems with the reclassification of cannabis in Scotland.

There is no doubt the change in the law has caused confusion, more so in Scotland than elsewhere. The Herald has previously reported a dramatic rise in the use and cultivation of cannabis among all age groups, with police blaming the rise on a misconception among the public that they would not be prosecuted. In England, it is true, possession became merely a cautionable offence. Yet in Scotland police have no power to give a warning and have continued to report offences to procurators-fiscal. This must also be a significant factor behind the rise in the numbers of young people arrested since the decision to reclassify was announced.

It is an anomaly that must be addressed. The public, and particularly teenagers, cannot be expected to comply with a law they do not understand. Yet there is little the Scottish Parliament can do. Classification of drugs is a power reserved to Westminster, even though law and order – on which the changes are having a direct impact – is devolved. All MSPs can do, therefore, is to push Westminster to address the situation north of the border. Mr Clarke's review is the ideal opportunity. Our politicians have a responsibility to ensure Scotland's teenagers know the law and are protected by it, even when that law is created by Westminster.

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