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12 February 2008

Dope’s policy?

Millions of Britons smoke cannabis occasionally, and manage to function. It has been part of the cul

By David Matthews

Last week the body charged with advising the government on the re-reclassification of cannabis from Class C back to Class B met to consider the latest diktat that Britain needs to get tough on soft drugs.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), an independent expert body that advises the government on drug related issues in the UK, has previously maintained that cannabis should remain a Class C drug.

But if the government gets its way and the ACMD sanctions a policy U-turn on its behalf nothing will change. All the evidence shows that tightening the law on cannabis has no effect on consumption rates. In fact, reclassification has led to a decrease in dope use.

Cannabis was downgraded in 2004, and for many smokers and abstainers alike, this looked like a liberal New Labour move, particularly when viewed against other very illiberal government policies aimed at curtailing personal freedom.

A year later, following a request from the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke the Advisory Council reviewed its position on the classification of cannabis, examining in particular the effects of cannabis on mental health, and claims of increased prevalence of dope with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), i.e. “skunk”.

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The ACMD listened to testimony from scientists to police officers and concluded that cannabis should remain a Class C drug. But the lobbyists are back on the attack.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has a simple twofold argument for reclassification. It says: “… a rise in cannabis farms, and an undercurrent in the market which suggests more harmful health effects,” means that the dope laws need to be tweaked.

Some 2000 domestic cannabis farms have been raided in the last 12 months, many of which are run by Southeast Asian criminal gangs. So much home grown skunk is now being produced that Britain is on the brink of becoming a net exporter of dope.

The police want to send out clear message: Britain is not in the business of cultivating marijuana. But coming on the back of changes to stop and search policy, reclassification will make it easier for the police to “profile” and search youths. All of a sudden, finding a couple of spliffs in a kid’s back pocket will be the end that justifies the means.

As for Jacqui Smith, she knows which way the wind is blowing. She is the fourth Home Secretary to oversee the reclassification issue in as many years.

Since reclassification there has been an increasing focus on feral youths, teenage delinquency and juvenile violence. Add to this growing youth unemployment, teen pregnancies and of course drug and alcohol abuse and Ms Smith must react. Something must be to blame. And that something is drugs.

In her letter of July 2007 to the ACMD, in which she invited them to carry out this latest dope study, Ms Smith admitted, “… statistics show that cannabis use has fallen significantly”. But she added the caveat, “… there is a real public concern about the potential mental health effects of cannabis use, in particular the use of stronger forms of the drug, commonly known as skunk”.

Is there really public concern about the use of dope; or is it concern about the social factors that nurture dope smoking? For a government struggling to come to terms with the causes of drug abuse, it is much easier, in PR terms at least to concentrate on effect.

On the mental health issue both Ms Smith and the police have a point. More and more health and counselling agencies are seeing young people presenting with mental health problems that stem from chronic dope smoking. Some research suggests that up to 75 per cent of drug-induced mental health problems relate to cannabis use.

But the government’s flip flopping over cannabis classification, like that with stop and search, is doomed to failure.

It is the frequency and amount of dope smoked that is the issue. As Morgan Spurlock illustrated in Super Size Me, living on Big Macs is not conducive to healthy living.

The overuse and abuse of weed by often unemployed, idle, bored, poorly educated and despondent youths, who spend every waking hour getting wasted has tightened the relationship between dope and mental health issues.

The fact that skunk is relatively cheap and is often used in combination with other drugs or cheap alcohol, and is a useful commodity for teenagers to trade (whether as career criminals or part-time dope dealers to supplement their meagre wages or benefits) has also made dope the drug of choice for Britain’s youth.

Millions of Britons smoke dope occasionally, and manage to function. It has been part of the cultural landscape for more than 40 years. Those that make it their vice will always find the ways and means to smoke, and evade the law.

Instead of tinkering with classification, the government should think more creatively about how it can give a growing number of feckless youths something meaningful to do with their lives rather than get wasted day in day out.

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