Pubdate: Fri, 23 Jan 2004
Source: Daily Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Telegraph Group Limited
Contact:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/114
Author: Alice Thomson

A PECULIARLY BRITISH FUDGE

There are two regimes in the world that managed to tackle their drugs 
problem - the Taliban's in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's in Iraq. The 
rest of us muddle through. Even David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, sounded 
flummoxed on the Today programme yesterday when asked what he would do if 
he encountered a group of children smoking a joint. Our position has been a 
peculiarly British fudge. Cabinet ministers, school teachers and judges 
admit to having smoked dope, yet it is still illegal.

Next week's proposals will confuse matters even further. Cannabis will be 
downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug, alongside tranquillisers and 
steroids. But, in a sudden panic, the Government has decided that taking 
Class C drugs will be an arrestable offence. In a further sign of 
nervousness, it has launched a ?1 million campaign warning people that the 
drug is still illegal.

Schoolchildren will now receive one message that cannabis is relatively 
harmless, and another that they could be banged up for two years for 
rolling a joint. This libertarian-authoritarian dance only makes sense if 
you're stoned.

So why not legalise cannabis like cigarettes and alcohol? That way Cabinet 
ministers could smoke it openly, the Government could get its hands on 
another tax and consumers would be allowed to decide on whether they 
thought its pleasurable sides outweighed its risks.

It all depends on whether you see cannabis as a vice similar to whisky, 
doughnuts or a packet of Marlboro Lights. Do you think it's a harmless - 
hangover-free - way of adding enjoyment to a Disney cartoon, a way of 
taking your mind off your homework or of unwinding when the children have 
gone to bed? Or do you think it can, in some cases, cause serious harm?

One in four 15-to 24-year-olds smoked it in 2002, according to the British 
Crime Survey. You don't see thousands of zombified teenagers on the 
streets. But the evidence on health risks is mounting.

For years, there has been anecdotal evidence that cannabis can cause 
psychosis. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health 
organisation Sane, once told me that in 16 years of meeting families who 
have lost a child to schizophrenia: "I can think of maybe two exceptions 
where cannabis was not involved in either the initial breakdown or in a 
relapse.''

Recent research backs this up. Yale Medical School, after an extensive 
study, showed that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in 
cannabis, can produce a psychotic reaction.

Hamish Turner, president of the Coroners' Society, says that cannabis is 
increasingly the factor behind deaths recorded as accidents or suicides. 
Prof Robin Murray, head of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, has 
said that cannabis users are seven times more likely to develop mental 
illness. The British Medical Association said it was very worried about the 
negative health effects of the drug.

Parents instinctively don't want their children to become dopeheads, even 
if they smoked it themselves. Discovering their 10u2011yearu2011old smoking 
his first cigarette in his bedroom is not as worrying as finding a lump of 
hash in his jeans. There is also the fear, as with the MMR jab, that your 
child might be the one who reacts adversely and is harmed for life. Sue 
Arnold, the journalist who spearheaded the campaign to legalise cannabis in 
the 1990s, changed her mind when her son, a cannabis smoker, became psychotic.

The Secondary Heads Association, which represents more than 4,000 schools, 
advises suspension for pupils caught more than once smoking cannabis. The 
majority of its members believe that regular cannabis use is more harmful 
to students' prospects than smoking or drinking.

I changed my mind before I had children. For most of my schoolfriends it 
was a harmless alternative to the pub. Yet one of them is still being 
treated for schizophrenia after becoming paranoid taking cannabis; 
another's family believe it contributed to his suicide. They were furious 
to read on a government website that "Cannabis psychosis is rare but 
treatable." It's not just the young who are affected. The man who recently 
shot dead his neighbour over a disputed hedge, and then killed himself, was 
said by the coroner to be a regular cannabis user.

What about the differing strengths of cannabis? According to toxicology 
expert Prof John Henry of St Mary's Hospital, until the early 1990s, there 
was less than one per cent of THC in most cannabis. Now the most potent 
form, skunk, taken by a third of users, contains up to 30 per cent.

Legalisers say that by criminalising cannabis you are introducing young 
users to heroin pushers. If you could buy cannabis over the counter, you 
could control the quality and cut out the illegal suppliers. But if it 
became easier to acquire, more people would smoke it regularly, and so 
might suffer more mental health problems. And unless you legalised all 
drugs, young people in search of an illegal thrill would be pushed farther 
up the drug chain. Black market gangs could still undercut licensed outlets 
and supply under-age users with untaxed cannabis.

A friend who was brought up in Holland believes they lost a generation when 
they relaxed their cannabis rules 26 years ago. Use of cannabis among 
children doubled between 1988 and 1999 before settling down. "We were 
smoking cannabis with our hot chocolate for breakfast," she says.

Unlike with identity cards, the Home Office is not being pressurised by 
other countries to relax its rules. In Sweden, where the government 
toughened its line towards cannabis - after deciding that it carried more 
mental health risks than heroin abuse - drug deaths have dropped for the 
first time since 1990.

Cannabis has muddled minds at Westminster. The new position is the worst of 
all worlds. No one knows where they stand - not the police, nor schools nor 
students. Meanwhile the people who suffer most  the addicts and their 
families  are paying for this Government's delusions. 
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart