Cannabis: a pleasant relaxant or an addictive curse? By Angela Caldin

At one time, I had a job looking after witnesses in a magistrates’ court. To start with, I had a makeshift office in a tiny space between probation and the window; such are the joys of the charity sector. The great thing about that office was that all sorts of people passed by and I got to know many of them, gaining a great deal of inside knowledge. One of the people I met was a drugs worker who worked with the prisoners down in the cells. Like many others, I believed that smoking cannabis could easily lead on to hard drugs, but my friendly drugs worker was adamant that it did not.

Although drug policies here and in the States have been guided by the assumption that using cannabis will lead on to using harder drugs, no widely accepted study has produced persuasive evidence either way.  A 2005 comprehensive review of the literature on the cannabis gateway hypothesis found that pre-existing traits may predispose users to addiction in general. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour found that the main factors in users moving on to other drugs were age, wealth, unemployment status, and psychological stress and that drug use is closely tied to a person’s life situation. But it is surely likely that being in the orbit of users where there is access to and availability of drugs must be factors which tend to encourage people to move on to other drugs.

Cannabis classification in the United Kingdom refers to the class of drugs, as determined by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, in which cannabis is placed. Between 1928 and 2004 it was classified as a class B drug. In January 2004, it was transferred to Class C, making arrest for possession less likely. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs had recommended such a reclassification as early as 1979, a view endorsed by the Runciman Report in 1999.

The change was designed in part to enable police forces to concentrate resources on more serious offences, including those involving harder drugs. The government stated that the reclassification of cannabis to class C had the desired effect, with arrests for cannabis possession falling by one third in the first year, saving an estimated 199,000 police hours. The question of health does not seem to have been uppermost in the government’s mind. In 2005 the reclassification of cannabis from class B to C was reviewed in light of new scientific research, and in January 2006 on the basis of advice from the Advisory Council, a decision was made not to return cannabis to class B. However, in July 2007, Jacqui Smith, then Home Secretary, confirmed that cannabis in the UK would again be classified as a class B drug, despite the Advisory Council’s recommendation, and this happened in January 2009. Concerns seemed to centre round the use of skunk, a much stronger form of cannabis than the pot of the sixties. After the controversial sacking of Professor David Nutt (Chief scientific advisor to the government), five other members of the council resigned in protest.

I doubt whether these reclassifications had much impact on the many and varied users of cannabis across the nation, except that they are more likely to get a criminal record now than between 2004 and 2009, and a criminal record is no help to anybody. I decided to look at the pros and cons of cannabis and came up with the following lists which I don’t claim to be exhaustive:

Benefits of Cannabis

  • increase in the blood supply to the brain can cause heightened awareness
  • reduction of mental tension and stress
  • lessening of aggression
  • possible assistance in treating cancer
  • management  of depression and anxiety
  • management of pain and increase in appetite for sufferers from multiple sclerosis
  • help for patients with glaucoma
  • help for chemotherapy and AIDS patients in reducing nausea

Drawbacks of Cannabis

  • impairment of thinking and memory
  • impairment of intelligence in younger users (as shown in a recent NZ report)
  • lowered sense of responsibility
  • impaired reactions
  • reduced balance
  • increased heartbeat
  • reduced blood pressure
  • increased risk of chronic cough and respiratory problems
  • risk of paranoia and mood swings
  • fatigue and increased appetite
  • link to schizophrenia

Long term detrimental effects

  • memory loss
  • confusion and delayed thought process
  • loss of motivation
  • blockage of blood vessels
  • cramps
  • lung cancer if smoked over a long period with tobacco

These lists make clear that the main benefits of cannabis are in medical situations and that the advantages of medical cannabis should be thoroughly researched and clinically assessed with a view to legalising cannabis in these situations.  The drawbacks seem to me to be worrying and in some cases serious, though Professor Nutt would argue that alcohol does far more damage to health and that the long-term effects and links to schizophrenia have not been proved. He would add that while no deaths have been attributed to cannabis in the last 30 years, the many deaths caused by alcohol are well documented.  It seems to me that it’s the threats to health we should be concentrating on in an effort to educate users and non-users about the risks involved, just as happened with tobacco. Cannabis is an addictive drug nowadays, since its strength has increased and skunk is readily available. But reclassifying to Class B is unlikely to achieve much, except to brand people with a criminal record with all the problems that brings. The emphasis should be firmly on mental and physical health rather than criminality.

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