UN criticises cannabis downgrading

The UK government is among those criticised in a UN report over the downgrading of cannabis, use of which continues to rise worldwide.

The 2006 World Drug Report says it is a mistake to dismiss cannabis as a “soft” and harmless drug, and there is mounting evidence that it can cause serious mental illness.

Cannabis was used by an estimated 162 million people worldwide at least once in 2004, equivalent to four per cent of the global population aged between 15 and 64, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In the UK, cannabis laws were relaxed by then home secretary David Blunkett in 2004, meaning that in the majority of cases, possession of small amounts of the drug is no longer an arrestable offence.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UNODC, said policies towards cannabis control must be consistent and not dependant on which political party was in power.

The report also identifies Britain, along with Spain, as the only countries in Europe where cocaine is used by more than two per cent of the population.

It says demand for cocaine in western Europe has reached “alarming levels”.

But Mr Costa said that since cannabis had become more potent, its harmful affects were no longer that different from cocaine, and he criticised the approach of governments towards the drug.

“National policies on cannabis vary and sometimes change from one year to the next,” he said.

“With cannabis-related health damage increasing, it is fundamentally wrong for countries to make cannabis control dependent on which party is in government. Policy reversals leave young people confused as to just how dangerous cannabis is.

“The cannabis pandemic, like other challenges to public health, requires consensus, a consistent commitment across the political spectrum and by society at large.”

He added that nations which fail to take drug control seriously, “have the drug problem they deserve”.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “Cannabis is controlled as a class C drug. It is harmful and illegal and no one should take it.

“In January 2006 the home secretary accepted the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommendation that cannabis remain a class C drug. This decision to retain its classification is supported by the police and by most drug and mental health charities.

She pointed out that use of cannabis among 16-24 year olds has fallen by 16 per cent since 1998.

The report also urges western governments not to ignore the problems of rising cocaine use.

“Demand for cocaine is rising in western Europe to alarming levels,” said Mr Costa.

“I urge European Union government not to ignore this peril. Too many professional, educated Europeans use cocaine, often denying their addiction, and drug abuse by celebrities is often presented uncritically by the media, leaving young people confused and vulnerable.”