Pubdate: Mon, 7 Apr 2008
Source: Edinburgh Evening News (UK)
Copyright: 2008 The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Author: Chris Marshall
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)


Gordon Brown wants to take a tough stand on drugs, starting with the 
regrading of marijuana as a class B drug. But, as Chris Marshall 
discovers, there are many doubts about his approach.

ALMOST as if it was imitating the effects of the drug itself, the 
debate surrounding the reclassification of cannabis has become 
increasingly hazy of late. The Government's drug advisory body is 
expected to recommend it keeps its current class C status, ranking it 
alongside painkillers and stress medication, rather than return it to 
class B with the likes of amphetamines.

That would once again require police to arrest anyone found in 
possession of the drug rather than simply caution them.

Gordon Brown, though, wants to upgrade it - a move he believes would 
send out a clear message that smoking dope is damaging to health and 
socially unacceptable.

Opinions on the matter are deeply divided, even among the agencies 
working with drug users, and mental health charities.

It takes time to cut through the haze, but after a careful study of 
the facts, a clearer picture does emerge.

The new report - commissioned amid fears about the growing 
availability of stronger "skunk" strains of cannabis - cites one 
important piece of evidence.

Significant new research from Keele University has severely dented 
the theory that cannabis use can cause schizophrenia. It has found 
that far from cases of the illness increasing in line with growing 
cannabis use in the UK in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, they have 
actually fallen. The same goes for incidences of psychosis.

Concerns of a link, however, remain, with a growing consensus that 
the drug seems to trigger or exacerbate the condition in a relatively 
small number of cases. There is also no doubt that its long-term 
usage increases the risk of lung cancer, high blood pressure and infertility.

The other great fear about former home secretary David Blunkett's 
downgrading of the drug in 2004, that it would lead to an explosion 
in use, also appears to have been unfounded.

Official research suggests cannabis use has actually fallen slightly 
over the last four years. Although that is probably unrelated to Mr 
Blunkett's decision, the reclassification has certainly not led to 
increased problems.

John Arthur, of Crew 2000, an advice and support group for 
Edinburgh's young drug users, is convinced that keeping cannabis 
class C is the right decision.

"Cannabis must be the most researched drug in terms of mental health 
problems," he said.

"There're around three million regular users of cannabis in the UK 
and if there were associated mental health problems you would think 
it would come through a lot more.

"There's absolutely no doubt that it can make existing problems 
worse, but it's completely dose dependent and will pass when the drug 
is out of the system. There's no evidence that's been produced to 
show it actually causes mental illness.

"Cannabis is like any other drug, including nicotine, alcohol and 
caffeine. All of them have an impact on mental health.

"There's always been strong cannabis around, but people don't tend to 
use the same amount, in the same way they don't use the same amounts 
of stronger types of alcohol. They only use the amount it takes to 
get them where they want to go."

Others working in the field remain concerned about the growing 
perception of cannabis as a "soft drug", an idea clearly reinforced 
by the C grading.

Chris Denmark, a research officer at Action on Alcohol and Drug 
Edinburgh, said many younger users were ignorant of the drug's dangers.

"A lot of people don't even view cannabis as a drug - it's become 
almost accepted," he said. "We've got really quite a young population 
smoking hash and that's been going on for a few years now. There has 
been two recent surveys of Scottish schools and there are kids under 
the age of 16 smoking it. I do think it's a dangerous drug. Calling 
it a 'soft drug' is a bit of a misnomer. Over the last few years 
there has been more and more evidence of a lot of potential problems 
being stored up by using cannabis."

One of the ironies of the debate is that it will have no impact on 
the approach of police in Scotland.

Gordon Meldrum, deputy director of the Scottish Crime and Drug 
Enforcement Agency, said: "When cannabis was reclassified, the 
Scottish Police Service effectively made no change and the day-to-day 
reality is that there has been no change in policing style or stance.

"We still treat people found on the street with cannabis in exactly 
the same way. We still see cannabis as a dangerous drug and a number 
of recent studies have confirmed that. Cannabis is still viewed very 
much as a gateway drug - it's still the first drug that children and 
young people will try. We've a focus on cocaine and heroin, but we've 
never taken our eye off the ball as far as cannabis is concerned."

Given the latest medical research and drug use studies, it is hard to 
resist the logic that cannabis should be graded class C. Smoking dope 
is certainly a lot less dangerous than taking amphetamines, so from a 
clinical point of view C does make sense. The argument, though, is 
also about the broader message, as the Prime Minister points out, 
sending out signals to young people at some level about the dangers 
and acceptability of drugs.

But is there not as much danger of sending out confused signals about 
other drugs if we are to artificially raise the status of cannabis? 
Should drug laws encourage people to think amphetamines are no more 
dangerous than cannabis when they clearly are?

Our approach to drugs as a nation needs to be based on honesty and 
facts if the important warnings about their inherent dangers are to 
carry any weight with an increasingly savvy generation of drug users. 
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