Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jan 2006
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Minette Marrin
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


Poor Charles Kennedy is not alone in his unhappy struggle with the 
demon drink; Britons lead the way in drinking themselves to death, 
according to the headlines on Friday. In more sober language, figures 
published in The Lancet last week showed a steep recent rise in 
Britain in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver (commonly caused by 
drinking too much), whereas the rate is falling fast in most other 
European countries.

In the 1950s England and Wales had by far the lowest rates of liver 
cirrhosis deaths in western Europe and Scotland's rate, although 
higher, was still relatively low. That has changed completely; in the 
1980s the death rate went up fast and in the 1990s it rose by 
two-thirds in England and Wales and doubled in Scotland. These 
alarming increases affect both men and women across all age groups 
and are accelerating.

Writing in The Lancet, Professor Robin Room blamed the UK government 
for turning "a determined blind eye to the problem" and for failing 
"to make the reduction of the population's alcohol intake a policy 
goal. Through the new alcohol licensing law, and the new official 
guidance on it, the national government has also done its best to tie 
the hands of local government on this issue".

It would be unfair to blame the government for whatever it is that 
makes people drink so much. But it is certainly fair to blame Labour 
for making it so much easier to drink, regardless of the explosion in 
underage drinking. It is fair to blame it for the extraordinary 
licence that it seems determined to legislate, for reasons which 
remain obscure. Not only does it seem to wish us to drink night and 
day; it has also tried to press us to gamble more and to relax about cannabis.

Now, not surprisingly, ministers are being driven to backtrack. Tessa 
Jowell was making recantatory noises about gambling and its dangers 
last week and Charles Clarke felt obliged on Friday to hint at a 
humiliating U-turn on cannabis; he appears to be thinking of turning 
it back into a class B drug - David Blunkett had downgraded it in 
2004 to class C - because of "recent" medical evidence about links 
between cannabis and serious mental illness.

Actually, the evidence is not all particularly recent. It has been 
becoming clearer since the mid-1980s that cannabis is associated with 
serious and long-term mental illness, particularly schizophrenia and 
psychosis, as well as short-term motivation and memory problems - 
just as it has been clear for years that hard drugs, alcohol and 
nicotine can cause terrible damage, too. What is recent is that 
people like Clarke have begun to believe it.

He belongs, as I do, to a generation that did not believe anything 
our elders and betters said about drugs, because it was quite clear 
that they did not know what they were talking about. Our elders 
disapproved of drugs not on medical but on moral grounds and were 
quite prepared to repeat scare stories and deliberate disinformation 
without evidence. Neither they nor we knew anything about the real 
damage that even soft drugs could do, and it was obvious that some 
self-appointed experts were too partisan to trust.

Besides, I have known many people who have taken hard drugs over long 
periods without becoming addicts. Similarly, young people know that 
hundreds of thousands of people take ecstasy every weekend without, 
apparently, any ill effects. Considering the numbers, the few deaths 
involved have been statistically insignificant and young people are 
well aware of that and become less and less prepared to pay attention 
to exaggerated warnings.

I did not believe the most serious warnings about cannabis until two 
years ago when the teenage son of some people close to us had a 
frightening psychotic episode after smoking a lot of "skunk" at a 
party. Like most London teenagers, he and his friends had always 
smoked weed without obvious ill effects, but skunk is much stronger 
than the cannabis of my youth.

Overnight this boy became paranoid, anxious, disoriented and 
depressed; his psychiatrist said "skunk psychosis" was becoming 
common and it is true that most teenagers will know of someone who 
has suffered it. This boy recovered in about six months and has given 
up drugs; even so, research published in November last year suggests 
that just one such episode is likely to be the precursor of mental 
illness later.

It was, of course, irrational of me to be convinced of the dangers by 
one instance and, of course, most people are not. Young people tend 
to think they are immortal and that risk is for other people. We know 
that only some smokers get cancer or coronary artery disease and that 
only some people become alcoholics. Different drugs affect different 
people differently and this confuses people about the risks. They 
know the risks vary according to the individual, but they don't know how.

It seems increasingly clear that genetic predisposition is important. 
Research published last year by the Institute of Psychiatry found 
that one in four cannabis users is genetically predisposed to become 
mentally ill as a result of smoking it and is 10 times more likely to 
suffer psychotic disorders than other smokers. The problem with 
genetic predispositions is that for now, at least, little is known 
about them. Apart from family history, there is for the most part no 
way of identifying individuals with particular predispositions.

All this presents an intractable problem, especially for 
libertarians. It seems wrong to restrict the freedom and pleasures of 
the many because of uncertain risks to the unknown few - to ban 
alcohol because some people will become alcoholics, for instance. In 
any case it is almost impossible. Prohibition did not work in America 
and the illegal drugs trade is out of control across most of the 
world, even in places such as China where dealers and users are executed.

However, we can tell the public the truth, as far as it is known, 
scrupulously and strikingly. This is most unlikely to happen. Public 
health campaigns, when not merely ineffectual, have all too often 
been manipulative or untruthful, on subjects from Aids to nits.

Perhaps there could be a new career for Kennedy in public health 
education - very liberal, very libertarian. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake