Liberal approach pays off as use of cannabis drops to 10-year low

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The Independent Online

The popularity of cannabis has plummeted with 600,000 fewer people smoking or eating marijuana than three years ago.

The new figures for England and Wales contradict claims that the current, more liberal approach to the drug, introduced nearly three years ago, has resulted in rising cannabis use.

Figures released yesterday by the Home Office reveal that overall drug use in England and Wales has dropped, although the abuse of cocaine has risen. The consumption of other class A substances, such as heroin, has remained static. Possible explanations for the decrease include the growing awareness that cannabis can cause mental health problems, and that marijuana abuse is being replaced by binge drinking.

An estimated 2.775 million people aged from 16 to 59 in England and Wales used cannabis in the year up to April 2006 - 8.7 per cent of that age group. This is the lowest level in the past 10 years when figures have been collected by the British Crime Survey.

The biggest decline has taken place since 2002-03 when it was found that 10.9 per cent (3.4 million) of 16 to 59-year-olds had taken cannabis in the past year. In 1998 the figure was 10.3 per cent, or about 3.1 million.

Even in 16 to 24-year-olds, where drug abuse is more commonplace, the use of cannabis has significantly declined. In 1998, 28.2 per cent of that age group were estimated to have taken cannabis. That figure has dropped to 21.4 per cent, or 1.338 million, in the past year.

The penalties for possessing cannabis were relaxed in January 2004 when David Blunkett, as home secretary, downgraded the drug from class B to class C. The police have ceased to treat possession of cannabis as an arrestable offence in most situations. This change in the law led to claims that many young people were using cannabis because they wrongly believed it had been legalised, and that drug dealers were exploiting the confusion. The Home Secretary has come under pressure to reverse the reclassification.

Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope, said: "The fact that cannabis use has continued to fall to its lowest level in nearly 10 years is further evidence that the decision to reclassify the drug to class C was sound. Some warned that the change would lead to an increase in cannabis use yet the reverse has happened, possibly because there is more awareness of the possible harms. The fact that cannabis has been linked with triggering mental conditions could have changed people's attitude towards the drug. Another possible explanation is the rise in binge drinking, which some people may be doing instead of taking cannabis."

Cannabis remains the drug most likely to be used. In 2005-06, 8.7 per cent of 16 to 59-year-olds reported using cannabis in the past year. Cocaine is the next most commonly used drug with 2.4 per cent (776,000 people) claiming to have used it in the previous year. This is followed by ecstasy at 1.6 per cent (502,000) and amphetamines at 1.3 per cent. Heroin (39,000) is far less popular.

The report, Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the British Crime Survey 2005-06, estimated that about 11 million people aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales have used illicit drugs in their lifetime, while less than 3.5 million are estimated to have done so in the past year.

The Government has announced it intends to reclassify the drug crystal meth from class B to class A, the category for the most dangerous drugs. This would mean those caught dealing the drug could receive a life sentence while those found in possession could face up to seven years.