Road to Vienna: British Government Chides International Narcotics Control Board on Cannabis Rescheduling Critique 3/28/03

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In a letter sent to the International Narcotics Control Board ( on behalf of the British government, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Member of Parliament Bob Ainsworth slammed the international narcobureaucrats for criticizing British moves to reschedule cannabis and vowed to rectify the problem at the United Nations drug summit in Vienna next month. In its annual report, released late last month, the INCB worried that downgrading cannabis offenses in England would "confuse" other countries and lead to increased cannabis cultivation.

"The reclassification of cannabis by the Government of the United Kingdom would undermine the efforts of the Governments of African countries to counter illicit cannabis cultivation, trafficking, and abuse," the INCB warned. "That action, it was held, sent the wrong message and could lead to increased cultivation of cannabis destined for the United Kingdom and other European countries."

The INCB report also decried the "worldwide repercussions" of Britain's decision to reschedule cannabis, "including confusion and widespread misunderstanding."

But Ainsworth, writing for the Blair administration, was having none of it. Britain's government, wrote Ainsworth, was "dismayed" at the report, and "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 the decision was presented to the media by the INCB."

While Ainsworth was careful to restate the British government's commitment to "tackling the scourge of drugs," he strongly defended the move to reschedule cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug. "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," wrote Ainsworth. "The Council's report is available on the website at 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 of 1971. It therefore recommended that it be reclassified to Class C under the Act."

Ainsworth pronounced his government amazed that the INCB would mischaracterize its decision-making and vowed to take the organization to task at the upcoming Vienna meeting. "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," he wrote. "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."

Ainsworth and the British government were particularly perturbed by comments made by INCB representatives at a press conference announcing the issuance of the report. "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 an ill-informed and potentially damaging message," Ainsworth wrote. "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."

Besides, Ainsworth added, the INCB's inability to distinguish between cannabis and other, more dangerous, drugs undermines responsible drug education. "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."

The battle is joined. For the first time, the global drug control regime and its bureaucracy will face a serious challenge to its prohibitionist consensus -- not only from the British, but from a growing number of countries and elected officials from around the world who have asked for a reconsideration of global prohibition policies.

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Issue #280, 3/28/03 The Week Online Needs Your Help | Editorial: I Smuggled Coca Soap into the United States | Road to Vienna: British Government Chides International Narcotics Control Board on Cannabis Rescheduling Critique | Will Canada Marijuana Decriminalization Be Collateral Damage in Iraq War? | Maryland Legislature Rebuffs Drug Czar, Passes Medical Marijuana Bill, Awaits Governor's Signature | DRCNet Interview: Ed Forchion, the New Jersey Weedman | Newsbrief: DEA Issues Final Hemp Rule, Would Ban Hemp Food Products in Weeks, Hempsters Fight Back | Newsbrief: Bill to Allow Syringe Purchases Moving in Illinois Legislature | Newsbrief: Bill to Restrict Needle Exchanges Gets Push in Rhode Island | Newsbrief: Colombia to Get $100 Million Bounty for Supporting Iraq War | Newsbrief: More Americans Dead in Colombia | Newsbrief: Lawsuit Charges Chicago Cops with Pattern of Illegal Stops, Searches of Minorities | Newsbrief: Bush to Nominate Woman Prosecutor to Head DEA | Newsbrief: Silence on Pusherstrasse -- Christiania Drug Sellers Strike for Future of "Free City" | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Jobs at WOLA | The Reformer's Calendar

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