Cannabis classification UK: what did Suella Braverman say about ‘effectively legalised’ drug, is it a Class A?

Reports that the Home Secretary is considering changing cannabis to a Class A drug have been dismissed as ‘political theatre’

Reclassifying cannabis as a Class A drug would be a “boon for organised crime,” have limited impact on use and could cost billions, experts have warned.

Reports over the weekend suggested that the Home Secretary was “receptive” to the position laid out by Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners at a party conference that the drug should be reclassified from Class B to Class A.

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While the Times reported a source close to Suella Braverman as saying she was in favour of the policy, No 10 and Home Office sources have sought to play down the likelihood of such a move in recent days.

Changing cannabis to a Class A drug would boost the maximum penalty for possession from five to seven years in prison, and from 14 years to a life sentence for supply and production.

Law enforcement figures warn against reclassification

The classification of cannabis has long been debated by drug reform campaigners, who argue that the harms associated with the drug would be better mitigated by a system of decriminalisation or even legalisation, which would bring regulation and make the substance safer.

Within the criminal justice system, there are also many who believe the ‘war on drugs’ approach has failed, and argue for a complete change in strategy to focus on the harms associated with problematic drug use, rather than criminalisation.

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LEAP UK, an organisation made up of current and former law enforcement members ranging from police constables to undercover detectives and chief constables, has spoken out against the potential change, and wider drugs policy.

It warns that reclassifying cannabis would lead to a scaling up of stop and search, which is an “aggressive and intrusive style of policing” and was originally reserved for intelligence-led operations.

Jason Reed, co-executive director of LEAP, told NationalWorld: “Now we use stop and search as a default setting and whole communities are getting arbitrarily impacted, this in turn leads to some truly distressing cases. BAME communities bear the brunt and we’re witnessing a rise in inexcusably invasive searches for children.”

“Reclassify cannabis and you’ll see an escalation in this and greater divides between the police and communities.”

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The group also argues, based on the views of undercover operatives with direct experience of the illegal drug trade, that reclassifying cannabis upwards would be a “boon for organised crime,” as it would drive up prices, and in turn lead to “more violence and intimidation”.

“We rarely catch the bosses, we only really have access to the mid-chain and lower-chain members of crime groups,” said Reed, “and often these people can be vulnerable and coerced.”

“Blanket harsh penalties for drugs often means placing vulnerable people in yet more difficulty. A criminal record lends itself to a life of crime simply; we should not wield the criminal justice system lightly, it has consequences for society if relied upon and applied disproportionately.”

Moving cannabis to Class A ‘would not make a difference’

Experts have also warned that reclassifying Cannabis would pile significant pressure on a criminal justice system which is already stretched to near-breaking point.

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There are already large backlogs in the courts and increasing the amount of prosecutions for low-level drug offences would lead to even greater delays, while prisons are also overcrowded.

The cost implications of ramping up policing and imprisonment for low-level drug use would also be massive, potentially stretching into the billions, experts believe.

However, drug reform campaigners also argue that reclassifying Cannabis would be unlikely to have the desired effect of reducing use.

Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform said the policy “feels very performative, like political theatre,” adding that politicians are “delusional if they think changing classification is going to make a difference”.

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“There’s no evidence that changes in classification have any impact on drug-taking decisions. Young people don’t check classifications before they go to a festival or go out on a weekend. The government’s own research shows no link between harshness of enforcement and levels of use,” he explained.

“Concerns with criminality and mental health are legitimate. We’ve had 50 years of criminalising cannabis and the problems highlighted emerged in that time. They’re advocating for more of the same policy.”

Rolles argues that while cannabis does have associated risks and can be harmful, the relative harms involved are made worse by making the drug illegal, and users are put at further risk by being criminalised than by using the drug itself.

“Criminalisation does harm people,” he said, “cannabis has risks, every drug does. What is absolutely clear is that, whatever the starting point risks of cannabis are, they increase when it is illegal.

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“Criminalisation is a harm-risk in and of itself. A criminal record is much worse for a young person than using cannabis. A criminal record makes it more likely that you’ll move on to harder drug uses. People in unstable relationships, employment or housing are more likely to become problematic drug users, and being given a criminal record or sent to prison increases the likelihood of all those things.”

What’s been said about reclassifying cannabis?

The Times reported that Braverman was considering the change in classification and that she was on the “same side” as Conservative PCCs who had suggested the move.

David Sidwick, the Dorset PCC, said: “We’re seeing it because it’s a gateway drug. If you look at the young people in treatment, the number one drug they are in treatment for is cannabis.”

The paper quoted a source close to Braverman as saying the Home Secretary agreed that it was a gateway drug and that deterrence through harsher penalties would be a key strategy in reducing use of the drug among teenagers. “We’ve got to scare people,” the source said.

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Asked about the reports that the Home Secretary wants to upgrade the drug to Class A, a Home Office source said: “That is a very big stretch of the imagination.

“Her position on this is that effectively cannabis has been legalised by not being policed properly. We need to focus attention on changing that.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman also played down reports, saying there are “no plans to change the laws around cannabis”.

While drug policy is determined by the Home Office, there is a requirement to consult the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) on any changes, including reclassification.

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As the ACMD has on several occasions argued that cannabis should be downgraded to a Class C drug again, experts believe it is highly unlikely that it would back a change in the opposite direction to Class A.

A Home Office spokesperson stressed that the government has no current plans to consult the ACMD on reclassifying cannabis, although its classification is “subject to review”.

However, while Ministers must consider the ACMD’s advice they are not obligated to follow it, nor would reclassification require an Act of Parliament, meaning the Home Secretary could force through the policy without a vote by MPs.

The spokesperson said:“Cannabis is a controlled drug on the basis of clear medical and scientific evidence of its harms. It is currently a Class B drug but its classification is subject to review.”

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