Confusion over British cannabis status

Monday, January 26, 2009

The British Magistrates' Association have voiced concern over the potential for confusion after the drug cannabis was reclassified by the government from Class C to Class B under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The confusion is said to arise from a new prosecution schedule for possession of the substance. Offenders will receive a warning for a first offence, an £80 immediate fine for a second offence and arrest and court proceedings for a third. This differs from the system in place for other Class B substances. However, the new system has not yet gone before the British parliament and will not be enforced until Wednesday, with the reclassification taking place today.

Cannabis sativa, here grown for hemp production.
Image: Bogdan.

The Magistrates' Association have argued that the new process had penalty rates lower than other Class B drugs and that the decision to take prosecutions away from the courts until a third offence sent out the wrong message to potential users.

The deputy chair of the Association, John Fassenfelt, told the BBC that the new system suggested to young people that cannabis was not as bad as other Class B drugs. "It's a dual justice system", he said. "If you smoke or take another Class B drug you'll be brought to court, if you take cannabis you'll be given a fine. Where's the justice in that?"

Cannabis was a Class B substance until 2004, when it was reclassified to the more lenient Class C after a campaign that began in 1979. Mental health campaigners have since pushed for a return to Class B, and the government enacted this change today.

A cross-media advertising campaign will launch next month to explain the changes, at a cost of £2.2 million. Class A substances include ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, heroin and crack. Class B now includes amphetamines and cannabis, whilst Class C now includes tranquilisers, GHB and the veterinary anaesthetic Ketamine.