Cannabis is more potent, more addictive than ever. Why are politicians failing to act?

    18 October 2017

    Street Lottery, a report released today on cannabis and mental health, revealed the test results on cannabis seized by Greater Manchester Police. The data suggests that street cannabis in the UK is almost exclusively of the form that is higher potency, more addictive and more likely to induce psychosis than the forms which used to prevail.

    That children have easy access to potent drugs is bad; people across the political spectrum purport to agree on this but almost universally fail to act.

    In a recent focus group I attended, children aged between 13 and 18 were asked if it was easy to access cannabis. The immediate response was raucous laughter throughout the room. One boy pointed out that it is easier to access cannabis than food since his local shop had opening hours but his dealer provided a 24 hour delivery service. When asked how to access cannabis another boy said ‘knock on any door.’

    Rather than focusing on the key issue (young people’s mental health) current policy’s stated aim on cannabis is to reduce overall consumption rather than reduce youth access or harms associated with cannabis use; this hasn’t worked. Despite decreasing levels of cannabis consumption we are seeing increasing rates of hospital admissions for psychosis: 46.3 per cent of first episode psychosis admissions had documented consumption of cannabis and, in terms of their demographic, were mainly male, single and between the ages of 16 and 25.

    Socially conservative politicians extoll the elusive benefits of blanket prohibition of a multi-billion pound domestic market with more consumers than the combined populations of Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol. They do this knowing it will reduce overall use rates despite also knowing that this leaves the vast market in the hands of criminals who ask for no ID and act unconstrained from any form of regulation except violence, corruption and coercion.

    Reformers seek decriminalisation of cannabis; the removal of criminal sanctions without the legal regulation of the plant. This response is a well-intentioned attempt to protect young people from harmful criminal records, redirect diminished police budgets and provide a more conducive environment for better drug education. These are all admirable aims but they miss the bigger opportunity.

    Legalisation and regulation of cannabis provides an environment where regulations can encourage safer products, entrepreneurs can innovate safer and more enjoyable products, retail and distribution can be controlled in a way which limits children’s access to cannabis and tax revenue can be generated and pumped into drug treatment services which have recently been decimated by cuts.

    The prohibition of cannabis, by far the most popular illicit drug in the UK and the world, has led to unconstrained market forces driving the product to its most potent and pernicious form which is then marketed highly successfully at young people.

    When the USA finally gave up on the monumental folly of alcohol-prohibition they legalised ethanol but not methanol. This is a benefit of regulation. Nobody wants moonshine which makes you go blind. Equally nobody wants cannabis that might induce psychosis.

    Cannabis is a complicated plant; there are different forms with different applications, different risks and different benefits. We need to engage with that and we can’t do so by leaving it nominally banned but lightening up on enforcement and nor can we do so by kicking doors down or throwing people in our drug-saturated prisons.

    Meanwhile in Canada, I recently attended a highly professional and well attended cannabis conference. It was convened to discuss the new market for cannabis in Canada which will go live in July 2018 and is set to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in tax revenue and a complex regulatory environment placing the emphasis on reducing youth access, eradicating criminal involvement in the market and encouraging safer products and safer forms of consumption.

    Esteemed scientists spoke about how less addictive and anti-psychotic extracts from the plant can be infused into drinks. No longer will people have to ruin their lungs in an attempt to get a high. Educators and charities spoke about well-funded, evidence-based youth education projects being rolled out with the tax revenue generated.

    The contrast between Canada and the UK could not be starker; rather than gathering our best and brightest to tackle the issue head on we have shrugged and looked away. Prosecution rates have fallen to a fifth of what they were twenty years ago, the product has become considerably more addictive and more frequently associated with poor mental health and psychosis. We learnt that expensive enforcement didn’t help, but we haven’t bothered to investigate the other options.

    Keep your eyes on Canada; they are building a market which is set to export both its safer products and safer policies around the globe and they will be all the safer and more prosperous for it. Regulated intelligently, the benefits will be self-evident. Who cares if more adults enjoy a low risk cannabis-infused alcohol-free beer in the evening if fewer children are stood on street corners selling and smoking increasingly harmful street cannabis?