Pubdate: Mon, 18 Apr 2016
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited


Drugs policy in the UK is not actually made in smoke-filled rooms but 
it might as well be. The mixture of befuddled optimism with a lack of 
urgency that characterises official thinking about cannabis has had 
dangerous results.

Getting on for 50 years of prohibition, vigorously defended in 
principle but lackadaisically enforced in practice, have produced a 
situation that combines the disadvantages of tolerance and 
criminalisation. Two generations of parents now know that it is not 
as dangerous as official propaganda told them, but this leads to a 
reluctance to admit that the habit has any real dangers at all. That 
in itself is dangerous to their children.

At the moment, smoking weed is a socially sanctioned form of crime, 
and widely understood as victimless (as it most often is), just as 
driving drunk was 60 years ago. But in fact the risks of heavy 
teenage cannabis consumption should frighten all of us.

There are more than 13,000 under-18s in treatment for the 
consequences of heavy cannabis use in England, and the largest age 
group among them are 15-to-16-year-olds. This suggests very 
widespread consumption among younger teenagers in some parts of the 
country, since problems don't normally develop until after smoking 
large quantities of powerful weed. The problems that can arise from 
such abuse are devastating. Psychotic breakdowns smash up lives and 
can lead to full-blown schizophrenia. This is a small risk of a 
dreadful outcome, something well worth a proper public health 
campaign. Absolute proof that cannabis can drive a minority of users 
mad can't be obtained for ethical reasons.

But the evidence we have is compelling enough to justify a proper 
public education programme of sufficient power to get the message out 
to vulnerable users and their friends and peers.

Neither those in favour of real prohibition nor those in favour of 
legalisation and control want teenagers and especially young teenagers smoking.

In that age group it is already causing far more problems than alcohol.

The question is how to diminish this harm. Muddling on as we are is 
clearly not going to work. Attempts to enforce prohibition are both 
unrealistic and unaffordable. Legalising such a dangerous substance 
is not a panacea either but it must be the least worst solution.

Such a measure could be defended only if it diminished the harm to 
vulnerable teenagers.

It is during the years when the brain is growing and being rewired 
that some unlucky young people are most vulnerable to the damaging 
effects of strong cannabis. One of the effects of prohibition has 
been to drive up the THC content and thus the potency of what's on 
sale, because this is maximises the ratio of profit to risk. Whether 
that is what consumers would choose if they could is another question.

It's not entirely fanciful to suppose that legal cannabis, 
intelligently taxed, would tend to be less powerful than much of what 
is on the market now, just as most of the drink sold in Britain is not spirits.

It might seem paradoxical to claim that the increasing evidence of 
the danger of cannabis to some users is an argument for legalisation. 
But an open and regulated market is easier to control than one whose 
existence cannot be officially sanctioned. That argument will take 
years to win. In the meantime, a public health campaign, aimed 
squarely at vulnerable teenagers, should be an urgent policy priority.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom