Dr Margaret Melrose is a reader in applied social science at the University of Bedfordshire, and submitted evidence to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs' recent review of cannabis's legal classification. She argues that the decision to upgrade the drug to class B is likely to criminalise young people.
I don't see the value of asking a panel of independent experts to review all the evidence and make recommendations, and then not to accept the recommendations they make. The Government seems to be pandering to various powerful lobby groups because it accepted all the other recommendations but rejected that one: it seems determined to stick to its policy regardless of what the evidence suggests, because the issue is such a political hot potato.
Reclassification will mean that the penalties for smoking cannabis will be commensurate with other class B drugs: this could mean five years in prison for possession and 14 for supply. But the young people I interviewed during my research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation weren't bothered by the drug's legal classification. Most of them said they would continue to smoke it regardless, until they wanted to stop. The Advisory Council also found that cannabis use isn't actually associated with antisocial or criminal behaviour, but the public perception is that it is, because there's a lot of misleading information which confuses people.
Criminalising young people for using cannabis is potentially a lot more harmful for their future opportunities and employment prospects than moderate use of it would be. Scientists have said they can't find a causal connection between smoking cannabis and the development of mental health problems, and the majority of users clearly do not develop psychotic symptoms. There's a lot of hysteria in this area, but there's still no evidence to suggest that cannabis is the causal factor.
Policing of the new classification system would have differential impacts. Young people who smoke joints on the streets of London are much more likely to be caught and criminalised than those who are able to do it in the privacy of their back gardens or in the grounds of their grammar or public schools. So those who are already the most socially disadvantaged will be the ones who suffer.
I agree that there are definitely public health issues surrounding the use of cannabis, and young people need to be warned of them in a very direct way. There's a lot more we could do in terms of educating them about its potential dangers, but making the drug increasingly criminalised could have grave consequences for the future of our young people.
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