London (CNSNews.com) - British doctors issued a warning Wednesday that plans to reduced penalties and loosen enforcement of cannabis laws will send the wrong message to the public.
At the end of this month, the government plans to follow through on a long-awaited scheme to downgrade marijuana from Class B to Class C, reducing penalties for possession of the drug.
The change will put marijuana possession on a par with steroids and anti-depressants. In practice, police will generally not arrest those caught with small quantities of the drug unless there are aggravating circumstances, such as other crimes being committed or use outside schools.
Smoking of the drug inside homes and on private property is expected to go largely unpunished.
The government insists the drug is not being legalized and that the moves will free up police manpower to target Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
Ministers have also pledged $1.8 million for a cannabis education campaign and have increased the maximum sentences for dealing Class B and Class C drugs to 14 years from 10 and five years, respectively.
But the British Medical Association said Wednesday that the declassification could harm public health.
"The BMA is extremely concerned that the public might think that reclassification equals 'safe'. It does not," said Dr. Peter Maguire, deputy chairman of the BMA's Board of Science. "We are very worried about the negative health effects of smoking cannabis and want the government to fund more research on this issue."
"Chronic cannabis smoking increases the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, bronchitis and emphysema," Maguire said.
The plans have also drawn fire from mental health charities, which warn that the drug could exacerbate some mental conditions.
A spokesman for Britain's Legalize Cannabis Alliance also criticized the government, but said that the declassification efforts didn't go far enough.
"When it comes to declassification, the government has given us the illusion of change," said the party's press officer, Don Barnard.
Barnard said that the "jury is still out" on the link between cannabis smoking and adverse health effects.
"If there is a link, that's an argument for us, to have it legalized and controlled in an environment like a coffee shop, away from children, away from fighting, off the street," he said.
Barnard also criticized the education campaign, calling it an example of government waste and calling for "true honest advice when it comes to cannabis."
The declassification plan was originally announced in July 2002 after a series of review hearings on British drug policy.
Along with doctors and some mental health groups, conservatives and church groups opposed the changes. Pro-legalization campaigners, libertarians and several drugs charities welcomed the declassification.
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UK Pot Laws Relaxed As London Police Extend Marijuana Experiment (July 10, 2002)
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