Letter by Bob Ainsworth (UK Home Office) to the INCB Secretariat

17 November 2005

Letter by Bob Ainsworth (UK Home Office) to the INCB Secretariat

Herr Herbert Schaepe
International Narcotics Control Board
Vienna International Centre
P 0 Box 500
A-1400 Vienna. AUSTRIA

Home Office
Bob Ainsworth MP
50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT

March 3, 2003


I am writing on behalf of the United Kingdom Government to record its dismay at comments made in the International Narcotics Control Board annual report about the Government's decision to reclassify cannabis. In particular the alarmist language used, the absence of any reference to the scientific evidence on which that decision was based, and the misleading way in which the decision was presented by the INCB to the media.

I should make it clear that the UK Government is absolutely committed to tackling the scourge of drugs, and to working in the international arena to develop effective policies and approaches to these issues. In its recently updated strategy, the Government announced that it was increasing its investment in tackling drugs from £426 million in this financial year to nearly £1.5 billion in the year starting April 2005. We have developed a full range of policies, based on evidence of what works, including tackling supply routes and middle markets, targeting action on the most dangerous drugs and on problematic drug misusers, providing effective education and support for young people and getting misusers into treatment.

The decision to reclassify cannabis was based on scientific advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, following their detailed scrutiny of all the available scientific and research material. The Council's report is available on the website at www.drugs.gov.uk/ReportsandPublications/DrugSpecific and I urge the Board to study it very carefully. As you will see the Advisory Council concluded that cannabis is unquestionably harmful, but that its current classification is disproportionate both in relation to its inherent toxicity, and to that of other substances (such as the amphetamines) that are currently within Class B of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It therefore recommended that it be reclassified to Class C under the Act. I would find it extraordinary if the Board thought that the UK Government should have ignored the science and based our decision on what people in some quarters might think. As we have made clear, cannabis will remain an illegal drug, and the Government will continue to publicise its illegality and the health issues around it.

It does great damage to the credibility of the messages we give to young people about the dangers of drug misuse if we try to pretend that cannabis is as harmful as drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. It quite clearly is not, and if we do not acknowledge that by ensuring our drugs law accurately reflect the relative harms of drugs, young people will not listen to our messages about the drugs which do the greatest harm. It is the misuse of Class A drugs which leads to a cycle of crime, social exclusion and misery. The reclassification of cannabis will therefore enhance the effectiveness and credibility of our drugs laws as a whole, and thereby facilitate delivery of the Government's key messages on drugs education to young people. It will also help the law enforcement and treatment agencies to focus their efforts on the most harmful drugs and on problematic drug misusers.

Against this background, the comments made in your report, your selective and inaccurate use of statistics, and failure to refer to the scientific basis on which the UK Government's decision was based all add up to ail ill-informed and potentially damaging message. This was compounded by the way in which the Board presented the cannabis reclassification decision to the media at the launch of its annual report on 26 February. For example, the Board representative is quoted as having said that we might end up in the next 10 or 20 years with our psychiatric hospitals filled with people who have problems with cannabis, and that a recent study by the British Lung Foundation found smoking three cannabis joints caused the same damage to the linings of the airways as 20 cigarettes. These are totally misleading statements. In its report on cannabis, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded on the basis of all the available evidence that, although cannabis use can unquestionably worsen existing mental illness, no clear causal link has been demonstrated between cannabis and the onset of mental illness. As to the health risks arising from smoking, the Advisory Council report made clear that while smoking cannabis may be more dangerous than tobacco, it needs to be set within the context that in general cannabis users smoke-fewer cigarettes per day than tobacco smokers and most give up in their 30s, so limiting long-term exposure.

My officials who will be attending the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in April will be taking the opportunity, when the INCB report is discussed, to intervene to correct the extremely misleading picture which your report, and its presentation to the media, have painted