Dazed and confused

Social workers are underestimating the damage caused by habitual cannabis use, new research suggests

Vulnerable young people who habitually use cannabis are more likely to become locked into a vicious cycle of drug use and social problems than their less vulnerable counterparts, according to research published at the end of October.

And, worryingly, social workers involved with young cannabis users often underestimate the damage that excessive use can cause, which may mean that vulnerable young people are not receiving the support they need to help them change their lives.

The study, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that the youth workers were as confused about cannabis use and its potential dangers as the young people they were supposed to help. Based on interviews with 100 daily cannabis users aged between 16 and 25, the study revealed that the negative effects of heavy cannabis use had the greatest impact on those who were already struggling with social problems such as low educational achievement, unemployment or homelessness. In addition, those with such problems tended to be the heaviest users of cannabis. Using the drug tended to make their problems worse, which in turn led to further use. On the whole, when the circumstances of regular users changed for the better they would stop using the drug or cut back on the amount they were smoking.

One reason that social workers may fail to fully understand the issues, the study suggests, is that they are likely to have had experience of relatively harmless cannabis use themselves. Older and perhaps unfamiliar with the highly potent skunk available today, they may not take the dangers faced by young people who use a lot of cannabis as seriously as they should. There is also confusion about what counts as "heavy" cannabis use, which can lull some into a false sense of security. When researchers asked what a heavy user might consume in a week, the answers ranged from an eighth of an ounce to ten times that amount.

"We know that drugs can have a devastating impact on young people's lives," said Kevin Brennan, minister for children and families. "We have a range of initiatives, such as the FRANK campaign, and specific guidance for schools, that inform the public and young people about drugs and in particular the risks and effects associated with cannabis use."

On specific recommendations from the JRF report, which include improving the social opportunities of heavy users, Brennan had no comment. But, earlier this year, the UK Drugs Policy Commission and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence found that straightforward anti-drug campaigns did little or nothing to curb drug use. The JRF report, like these studies, spells out that drug use and social problems have to be tackled in tandem.