Reclassification of cannabis 'fuels youth crime wave'

In some areas, nine out of 10 take the drug – and those who work with them say the situation is out of control. By Nina Lakhani
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The Independent Online

Cannabis use among Britain's young offenders is "out of control", up by 75 per cent in some areas and fuelling a crime epidemic, with youngsters stealing to fund their addictions, according to two studies.

A national survey of Youth Offending Teams indicates that two-thirds of them have seen an increase in cannabis use of between 25 per cent and 75 per cent since David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, downgraded the drug to class C in 2004. Some 90 per cent of all young offenders are using cannabis in some areas, a far greater proportion than the general youth population.

Research carried out by King's College London has indicated that 25 per cent of young offenders in Sheffield have turned to crime to fund their habit. This contrasts with previous government research which said that "cannabis use was unlikely to motivate crime".

A rise in young people smoking cannabis openly has led to a rise in the fear of crime in the community, leading Sheffield's police chief to warn of the threat that cannabis poses to the "fabric of society".

Fifty out of 51 of the youth courts in England and Wales are so alarmed that they have written to Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, urging an upgrading of cannabis back to class B. Within a month of Gordon Brown taking over as Prime Minister in June, Ms Smith signalled a review of the controversial decision to downgrade cannabis amid growing fears of the serious mental health implications of stronger varieties of the drug, first highlighted in the IoS in March.

A detailed review in The Lancet concluded that the drug increases the risk of psychosis by 40 per cent – and younger users are most at risk. But Mr Blunkett's decision to reclassify the drug three years ago has had another, more sinister impact, with organised crime taking a much more active role in the production and distribution of cannabis.

Detectives say that the changing nature of cannabis – as imported cannabis gives way to the much more damaging skunk variety, grown in this country – has also played into the hands of criminals. Drugs experts and police also say that Britain for the first time is an exporter of the drug.

John House, the Chief Superintendent of South Yorkshire Police, said: "Cannabis production in this country is rising exponentially. We used to be a net importer of cannabis from places like Morocco, but there are indications that we are now starting to export cannabis."

Youth Offending Teams said that since reclassification dealers were finding it easier to convince young people to try what they now wrongly regarded as a relatively harmless drug.

Nationwide, YOTs deal with 10,000 youngsters up to the age of 17 who come before the courts, but whose punishment falls short of being sent to a secure unit.

Darren Johnson, the secretary of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, said that cannabis consumption was "out of control" in some areas, with nine in every 10 youth offenders reporting that they used the drug.

Overall, official figures suggest cannabis use is stable, but that masks a very different picture among the most vulnerable youngsters in society, say experts.

Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, said: "Downgrading cannabis was a mistake because it made it out to be less dangerous than it is. Adult minds and adolescent minds are different and young people must not play games with this stuff. "

Ch Supt House, who commissioned the King's College research, said: "The reclassification of cannabis was a decision taken based on a different drug. It wasn't taken bearing in mind the strength of new cannabis, or the potential damage to social fabric caused by open cannabis smoking in the street by those who don't perceive it as a serious crime."

The number of cannabis factories closed down by the Metropolitan Police has more than doubled in the past two years as organised gangs invest more in cannabis production. In March, the charity DrugScope revealed that, on average, UK police were raiding three cannabis farms a day with 400 plants regularly recovered at raids. Around two-thirds to three-quarters of UK cannabis farms are now run by Vietnamese criminal gangs.

Tim Hollis, the Chief Constable of Humberside, and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers drugs committee, said: "A large number of police forces are increasingly coming across cannabis factories, where there is significant investment by criminals in the infrastructure to produce cannabis in considerable quantities. There is increasing evidence of the scale and the geographic spread. This isn't just happening in urban areas, now we are finding them in the more traditional, rural areas."

Growing new strains of cannabis under ultra-violet lights, dealers are producing stronger varieties such as skunk, linked with the massive rise in cannabis-related hospital admissions and addictions among young people. These have triggered the current government review by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs into whether cannabis should revert to being a class B drug.

The Home Secretary will announce her decision next April – and experts are divided, with many believing the most pressing issue is one of mental health provision rather than primarily an issue of criminality.

Professor Sue Bailey, a forensic psychiatrist who works with young offenders with mental health problems, said: "From my own experience in clinical practice over the last three years I can say cannabis use has increased, the amounts young people are smoking have increased but the most critical factor is that they seem to be starting younger."

Emma Warren, a mentor at Live, a magazine produced by young people in south London where half of the youngsters are referred by agencies such as YOTs and the Probation Service, said: "Cannabis is seen as very everyday, it is normalised, even more so than in previous generations. While most people who smoke do so recreationally, the ones that do fall, fall harder now than they did before."

Mann-Ray, a 19-year-old photographer with Live, has never used cannabis but sees it as a part of everyday life. He said: "Everybody smokes now, even sensible people. They think it's not a big deal, that it's as harmless as air. In the past people used to hide it, but now they are really open, even at college."

This worrying trend continues, according to Clare McNeil, spokeswoman for Addaction, a drug treatment charity: "Over half the young people we work with are being seen due to cannabis use and a quarter of these are using skunk – a proportion that is growing. Cannabis is seen by young people as a 'safe' drug and many young people will smoke skunk in the same way as they drink lager. Whether cannabis is class B or C doesn't make any difference to the young people we work with, many of whom actually think the drug is legal."

Rethink, the mental health charity, is calling for young people to be educated on the dangers of the drug after its research found that around half of young people think cannabis is safer than alcohol and a quarter say that it is better for you than coffee.

"Jacqui Smith should use the current review to deliver the 'massive' public education campaign which Charles Clarke promised in 2005," says Jane Harris, the head of campaigns at Rethink. "This is the key task, which we should all focus on instead of fiddling with the classification system."

And Darren Johnson, spokesman for YOT managers, said: "The main impact of reclassification would not necessarily be a change in use but rather a change in the police approach to it, namely the police would arrest more young people, thus bringing more into the criminal justice system."

Police or politicians alone will not be able to solve the problem, says Chief Constable Hollis: "Young people do not make choices based on the classification of drugs... we need to think about how we communicate with them to make better-informed choices, which is quite a challenge, but I think it needs some real humility and for us to be honest with ourselves. Clearly the police have a role to play... but anyone who thinks a police officer or a politician in a grey suit can stand up and say, 'Don't do this, children, because...' and thinks that will have a huge impact is naive."

Vox youth: confusion on the street about the effects of cannabis

Adam, 19, Newcastle

Cannabis is about as bad for you as smoking cigarettes, but I have heard it can mess up your short-term memory

Ina, 21, Australia

You can get addicted to it, but there are also advantages, like you sleep better and it makes you hungry so you can put on weight

Malwina, 21, London

Cannabis is really addictive. I had a friend who smoked dope and he became really aggressive, like he was a different person

Reece, 16, London

It's not that bad for you, better than cigarettes I think. It eases your stress but I think the police would take it off you

Marta, 16, London

It's really bad, so I think you would get arrested and in a lot of trouble with your parents

'I can't believe what a horror I was'

David, 22, from Brixton, south London;

"I dropped out of school when I was 13, a few months after I started smoking weed. Looking back, it made my concentration and behaviour worse but I couldn't see that then, so I left.

"I smoked £20 worth every day and started robbing people to pay for it. I would threaten violence to show off to my mates and make myself feel bigger and get my anger out. Once you've got street cred it feels so good. You get respect – it's like being a bank manager.

"I got charged with ABH and robbery when I was 14 but didn't stop and went to prison at 18. I can't believe what a horrible kid I was. While I wouldn't recommend it, prison helped me realise I wanted to change. I took a catering course and finally found something I loved. My mentor at 'Live' magazine encouraged me to apply for Jamie Oliver's 15. I thought he was crazy, but when they told me I was in, it felt like I was going to explode with happiness. My mum was so proud – that's what I really wanted.

"I stopped smoking completely, and I feel happier, less angry and more confident. Now I want be a TV chef, like Jamie." NL