LONDON — The House of Lords on Tuesday backed a plan to toughen Britain's penalties for possessing marijuana, as a group of senior scientists warned that such a move would confuse people about the dangers of more potent drugs.
Parliament's upper chamber endorsed a measure that passed the more powerful House of Commons earlier this month. The Lords' vote is seen as a formality since it cannot kill legislation, but only delay it.
The Home Office said it expected the change to take effect in January.
In Britain, drugs are classified into three different categories, with «Class A» the most dangerous. Marijuana is now a «Class C» drug but will be upgraded to «Class B, » which the government argues is necessary because of the increasing potency of some cannabis varieties.
Marijuana will join amphetamines, Ritalin and pholcodine as «Class B» drugs, whose possession can result in up to five years in prison. Marijuana possession is now punishable by up to two years in jail, although users aren't typically prosecuted until after a third offense.
The change would reverse the relaxation of British cannabis laws in 2004 and ignore the recommendations of the government's drug advisory council.
In a letter published in The Guardian newspaper, 10 scientists said the reclassification could be «very damaging, » saying it sends a confusing message about the more dangerous «Class B» drugs.
Among those signing the letter were Michael Rawlins, former head of the drug advisory council, and two former chief scientific advisers to the government, David King and Robert May.
The letter criticized the government for ignoring the advice of the advisory council, which has said scientific evidence on the health dangers of marijuana did not justify putting the drug back in the higher category.
"Cannabis use has fallen in recent years, especially following the downgrading to Class C in 2004, and it's obviously unwise to risk reversing that trend, " the letter said.
The Home Office has said it wants to send a message to marijuana users that possessing the drug is a serious crime. It said the evidence about the risks of marijuana use was more uncertain now than it had been in the past.
On the Net:
Home Office drug site: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/drugs/drugs-law/Class-a-b-c/
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