Home > Cannabis again reclassified in the UK.

Connolly, Johnny (2009) Cannabis again reclassified in the UK. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 29, Spring 2009, pp. 9-10.

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In January 2004, on foot of a modification order to the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 cannabis was reclassified from a Class B to a Class C drug. The changes came about following a recommendation by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in March 2002.

 In January 2009, despite the opposition of the ACMD on this occasion, cannabis was again reclassified as a Class B drug. Substances controlled under the Act are grouped on the basis of their harmfulness into three classes:
  • Class A (the most harmful) includes cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamine
  • Class B (an intermediate category) includes amphetamine, barbiturates and, now, cannabis
  • Class C (less harmful) includes benzodiazepines and anabolic steroids.
This system of classification helps determine the penalties for the possession and supply of controlled substances.
 In July 2007 the Home Secretary requested, in the light of 'real public concern about the potential mental health affects of cannabis use, in particular the use of stronger forms of the drug, commonly known as skunk', that the ACMD re-assess the classification of cannabis. The ACMD reviewed the literature, particularly material published since 2005, and considered oral and written evidence. In its published report,1 the Council concluded that 'there are clear and obvious harms associated with the use of cannabis by people with psychotic disorders' and that this was confirmed by recent studies (p. 15). It also concluded that the evidence supports a 'causal association between the use of cannabis, in adolescence, and the later development of schizophrenia' (p. 18). The report refers to a recent study where 'the authors concluded that the shift in cannabis consumption to more prolonged use, initiated at an earlier age, is relatively recent; and that its full impact may not yet be apparent' (p. 18). The ACMD remarked that while the causal link between cannabis use and psychotic illness was weak, 'whether such a causal link will become stronger with the wider use of higher potency cannabis products remains uncertain' (p. 30).
 The ACMD reviewed the evidence on cannabis availability and purity and concluded that sinsemilla now dominates the UK cannabis market and that it appears to have a substantially higher tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content than cannabis resin or traditional herbal cannabis. THC is the active ingredient which produces the sensation or 'high' being sought by users. Sinsemilla is composed of the flowering tops of unfertilised female cannabis plants produced by intensive indoor cultivation methods. Because of its greater potency, the ACMD expressed concern about the 'substantial increase' in the market share of sinsemilla.
 As part of its deliberations, the Council commissioned an opinion poll to investigate the views of the wider public on the classification of cannabis. A majority of the 1,003 respondents wanted cannabis to be classified as a Class A or Class B substance. However, most did not favour the introduction of harsher penalties for cannabis possession, although this was the logical consequence of reclassification.
 The ACMD made 21 recommendations to government, including that cannabis remain a Class C drug. In making this recommendation the Council stated: 'Although the majority of members recognise the harms caused by the use of cannabis to individuals and society, they do not consider these to be as serious as those of drugs in Class B.' However, the report also noted that: 'A minority of members...remain very concerned about the effects of cannabis on the mental health of users, especially in the light of the (now) wide availability and use of sinsemilla. In their view the balance of harms more closely equates to substances in Class B than Class C' (p. 34). The ACMD agreed to conduct a further review of the evidence in 2010.
 The government accepted 20 of the 21 recommendations of the ACMD. These covered areas such as primary and secondary prevention, supply reduction, measures to protect particular at-risk groups, and further research.  In rejecting the ACMD's recommendation on the classification of cannabis and in justifying its decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug, the government stated: 'Government is expected to take an overview...we have to maintain a classification for cannabis that takes account of its known risks to health as well as the potential long-term impacts on health where the evidence is not conclusive. The significant increase in both the market share of higher than average potency cannabis and its actual potency in the last few years in the UK are compelling factors.'2 
 As a Class B drug, the maximum penalty for supplying or producing cannabis is 14 years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. This remains unchanged from when the drug was Class C. However, with reclassification, the maximum penalty for possession increases from two to five years' imprisonment. The government also intends to introduce an 'escalation' penalty system for cannabis possession by those aged over 18. The system for under-18s caught in possession will remain unchanged as it already provides an escalation mechanism, according to the government's response. 
 1. Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2008) Cannabis: classification and public health. London: United Kingdom Home Office. 
2. Central Office of Information (2008) Government response to the recommendations made by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in its report Cannabis: classification and public health. London: Central Office of Information (COI) on behalf of HM Government, p. 2.
Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Intervention Type
Harm reduction
Issue Title
Issue 29, Spring 2009
Page Range
pp. 9-10
Health Research Board
Issue 29, Spring 2009
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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