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A mixed up message

Thu 22 Jan 2004
Evening News

FROM next week, cannabis will be reclassified from a class B to a class C drug. Next week the Government will also launch a major public information campaign to warn people that the drug remains illegal.

So what exactly is the point of this reclassification? According to Home Office Minister Caroline Flint, it is an attempt to be "honest" with young people about the harm cannabis can cause compared to other drugs like heroin.

Certainly the impending reclassification has sent out the signal to the public that cannabis is relatively safe compared to other illegal drugs. And not only is cannabis increasingly perceived as "safe", but as a drug which may have therapeutic properties for people with debilitating health problems like multiple sclerosis.

But recent research also suggests that cannabis can have serious side effects, including an increased risk of schizophrenia, memory problems and paranoia. Smoking a cannabis joint is also more far more harmful to health than smoking an ordinary cigarette, as it contains higher levels of tar and toxic chemicals.

At the same time, there is no doubt that its use is widespread and there are fewer risks than are linked to other, harder drugs such as heroin, ecstasy or cocaine. The fact is that no drug, whether legal or otherwise, is without the risk of side effects and the Executive’s Know the Score campaign has some credibility in acknowledging this.

But there is a difference between educating the public about the relative risks of drugs misuse and reclassification. The decision to downgrade cannabis has led many to believe it is being legalised, and there have been plans to open cannabis cafes in this city.

But in reality, little will change next week. Cannabis will still be illegal. The police will still be bound to report those found in possession of cannabis, although the procurator fiscal will have discretion as to whether to prosecute.

Michael Howard’s pledge to reverse the reclassification if the Tories regain power is also a red herring, as reclassification is not really the issue here - the issue is the absence of a clearly thought-out drugs policy from either Labour or the Tories.

Downgrading cannabis from class B to class C at the same time as launching a campaign to warn people of the drug’s risks is confusing.

When drugs are the lifeblood of organised crime and cause so much misery to ordinary people’s lives in this country, we need absolute clarity of policy and purpose.

Votes of interest

THE vexed question of whether Edinburgh should charge its motorists to drive into the city centre, or even the city itself, will not be resolved easily.

Yet one of the best available ways of ensuring the council had a mandate to proceed with the plans seems to be the public referendum which has been promised by the city council’s ruling Labour group.

Now, however, it has emerged that some 87,000 people in the city - a staggering one in four of the voting population - look set to be excluded from the vote.

As this is not an election, the council cannot contact people on the electoral roll who have requested that their names only appear on an edited register, so they can avoid receiving junk mail.

However, this also means that the council cannot even write to them to inform them that they are set to miss out on voting in the referendum.

On this basis, it seems clear that the result of the referendum stands to be flawed.

This is only the latest setback to the council’s plans for the tolls, as the most recent phase of public consultation received an utterly dismal response.

The council should put the taxpayers’ money to better use and scrap this costly referendum and only look at road charging after transport improvements.

© Copyright 2004, The Scotsman