Cannabis: What is it? - What does it do to you? - How many people use it - Is it addictive? - Is it worse or better than alcohol?

MICHAEL HOWARD, the Home Secretary, last week announced the introduction of tougher penalties for possession of soft drugs such as cannabis. Fines would be increased five-fold from pounds 500 to pounds 2,500 in an amendement to the Criminal Justice Bill. The tough approach is in sharp contrast to what police and Customs do on the ground, and the growing support from all quarters for legalisation of some drugs - especially cannabis - in an effort to combat abuse and drug- related crime. So what is this drug that the minister fears? And should we be worried about it?

What is cannabis?

A drug which under a variety of names - dope, pot, marijuana, grass, ganja, - is used by millions of people worldwide to help them relax and enjoy the pleasant 'high' it can generate. People with chronic or terminal illness also use it for relief of symptoms. A bushy plant, Cannabis sativa, which grows wild in many countries and is easily cultivated here, is the source of of cannabis. The active ingredients are chemicals known as tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), and the potency depends on which part of the plant is used.

Hashish, or hash, is the most popular form in this country, and is a resin scraped from the dried plant and compressed into blocks. Less potent is herbal cannabis, the dried leafy parts of the plant (or marijuana).

Most people use it rolled up in a cigarette, neat or mixed with tobacco. It also can be added to food, or brewed into a drink. Cost varies widely, but at current street prices imported herbal cannabis costs up to pounds 80 per ounce; pounds 25- pounds 30 for a quarter ounce of resin.

What is its history?

A Chinese pharmacy text dating from the 1st Century is the first documented use of cannabis, as a herbal medicine, with sedative and pain-relieving properties. Western medicine appears not to have discovered its benefits until the 1840s, and Queen Victoria's physician was one of many in the profession who quickly became a fan and prescribed it for many illnesses. The ancient Chinese had also discovered its 'leisure and pleasure' use, closely followed by the Indian subcontinent. Its popularity as a recreational drug in this country is traced to the 1950s and 1960s, from the growth of jazz clubs and the jazz culture, and the flood of immigrants, particularly from the West Indies where it is an integral part of the culture. For Rastafarians it is regarded as sacred. Since the 1970s cannabis has been the most widely used of all illegal drugs.

When was it made illegal?

The man to blame was an an Egyptian delegate at an international opium conference in the 1920s made an impassioned plea that Britain include cannabis in any agreement on prohibition of opiates, and in 1928 the recreational use of the drug was banned here. In 1973 the Misuse of Drugs Act, which governs the use of cannabis in its various forms, outlawed the use of cannabis medicinally. Under the Act it is an offence to allow any premises under your control to be used for growing, preparing, supplying or smoking cannabis.

How many and what sort of people use it?

Precise figures are hard to come by - people are understandably reluctant to admit to being users because of its criminal connotations - but as many as six million in the UK have used cannabis in one form or another at some time. There are between a million and 1.5 million users at present, according to a range of surveys carried out in 1991, and they are drawn from every group in society.

Use is most common in the 16-45 age group, although children as young as 11 have been reported, while some people in their sixties and seventies will admit to the occasional joint. Heavy users are people who smoke five or more joints a day - often shared - while a regular user is someone who smokes one or two joints several times a week.

What are the effects of cannabis use?

It really depends on your mood, the strength and amount consumed, where you are and who you are with and your experience of the drug. On plus side it will give you a gentle 'high', making you mildly euphoric, pleasantly relaxed and rather giggly. The most mundane things can seem wildly fun. However it can also make you feel lethargic and depressed, and if you are anxious anyway it can make it worse. In rare cases where somebody has a predisposition to mental illness, cannabis can unmask and exacerbate the problems, and a small number of first-timers can suffer temporary psychological distress and confusion. Side- effects of the drug include increased pulse rate and decreased blood pressure, bloodshot eyes, dry mouth, increased appetite and occasional dizziness. The effects usually start a few minutes after smoking and can last up to one hour at low doses and two to three hours at higher doses. Eating or drinking cannabis takes longer - an hour or so - to have an effect but can last for 12 hours or more.

Does it have any other uses apart from pleasure?

Yes, according to thousands of people suffering from multiple sclerosis, Aids, cancer, glaucoma, and epilepsy. They say the drug reduces nausea, loss of balance and muscle spasms, and is more effective than conventional drugs. As the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics they are campaigning for its re-introduction as a prescribed medicine and the prospect is hopeful. The Home Office is now reviewing the case and the Department of Health is generally sympathetic.

Is it addictive?

No. Regular users may develop a psychological need for the drug, or come to rely on it as a 'social lubricant' similar to a glass of wine, or gin and tonic. But there is no physical dependence or unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you stop using. However, some people may use it so regularly that they are always under the influence; you could say they become addicted to the chemically-induced reality rather than the drug.

What kind of damage does it do, if any?

It all depends on which side of the camp you are on. Someone, somewhere will have done some research to support whatever point of view you favour. Those in the know say that US Government backed research is particularly suspect.

While under the influence of cannabis, your short-term memory may be impaired, as will your ability to drive - which you shouldn't - and carry out intellectual or manual tasks, but any unpleasant effects are usually temporary. In the long-term the consensus is that moderate, long-term use does not cause any lasting damage to physical or mental health of the user, although heavy users may appear to 'slow down', becoming clumsy, slow-thinking and apathetic. This can persist for a time after they give up.

Is it more or less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco?

Difficult to say. Some 110,000 people die of smoking-related illness each year, and 20,000 of alcohol abuse. There are no recorded deaths from a cannabis overdose, and since it would take at least a pound-and-a-half of the stuff to kill a human, it easy to see why.

Frequent inhalation of cannabis smoke over many years probably causes bronchitis and other respiratory illness, and possibly cancer of the lung and the upper digestive tract. No one knows whether regular cannabis smoking is more risky than regular tobacco smoking. Used neat it is probably less dangerous than tobacco, and some believe it compares favourably with caffeine, aspirin and some food additives in terms of risk to health. Used with tobacco it may cause more physical problems.

On the other hand cannabis users inhale more deeply and in general cannabis contains higher concentrations of potentially carcinogenic tar.

Is there any evidence that it leads to use of other drugs?

The 'escalation' hypothesis - that cannabis use leads to the use of more dangerous drugs - is one of the strongest arguments against legalisation of the drug. That more cannabis use would lead to more heroin use for example.

In the 1980s research from America suggested that this was the case. But any direct relationship is far from clear. Yes, some heroin users have previously used cannabis, although only a small proportion of those who try cannabis then progress to heroin.

Moreover, it is argued that laws prohibiting cannabis use mean that people come into contact with dealers and other illicit drugs, which they may be tempted to try.

Until more research is done, the best conclusions that can be drawn are: a) cannabis use generally precedes the use of other illegal drugs has generally been preceeded by the use of cannabis but b) cannabis does not necessarily - or even usually - lead to the use of other illegal drugs.

How many convictions are there for using it?

In 1992 there were 57,663 seizures for cannabis - out of a total of 72,065 for all drugs - amounting to some 51,000 kilos. A total of 41,353 people were found guilty of possession.

There is wide variation in how the police and courts deal with offenders, with many forces and Customs developing their own 'practical' approach in enforcement of the drugs laws which, according to the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, is 'decriminalisation in practice'.

About third of all cannabis offenders are either not taken to court at all or discharged; less than 10 per cent are sentenced to immediate imprisonment and most sentences are for less than a year. In 1992,

915 people - none of whom

were first offenders - were imprisoned.

But the most common penalties are 'on the spot' fines by Customs for people caught with small quantities, and cautioning by the police.

Between 1981 and 1992 the number of people cautioned rose from 1 per cent of cases to 45 per cent. They admit guilt, receive a formal caution and a criminal record but they do not have to go to court.

What are the arguments against legalisation?

Many and well-rehearsed. There is the 'escalation hypothesis' (see above), more cannabis means more heroin, crack, etc, and more crime to pay for the drugs. And if cannabis possession was no longer an arrestable offence then the police would be denied a chance to search for more incriminating evidence - although in 1991 80 per cent of these searches did not result in a drugs arrest.

Internationally it could cause problems; if Britain made cannabis possession a non- criminal offence then it would have to withdraw from the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, risking isolation. While it has been partially decriminalised in some places, such as the Netherlands and Italy, it is not legal anywhere. There is also the legacy of an alternative and deviant lifestyle associated with the drug, which colours political and public reaction. But those against legalisation - and this Government is firmly opposed - usually come back to concerns about health and the argument that cannabis use in some cases may be harmful, and until more is known then it should remain a controlled drug.

And the arguments for?

Many and well rehearsed. One of the principles of a civilised, democratic society, argue those in favour of legalisation, is that people should be free to take acceptable risks provided that it doesn't harm anyone else.

The current laws 'criminalise' thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens, and consume valuable police manpower, court time and millions of pounds better invested in fighting serious crimes against people and property. The amount spent on cannabis by the regular user - about pounds 25 a week - is thought unlikely to initiate crime itself.

Since the 1960s there have been numerous campaigns for legalisation of cannabis, but it is only in the past 10 to 15 years that 'establishment' figures have spoken out. A growing number of senior police officers, judges, lawyers and doctors - here and abroad - see legalisation of soft drugs as the only way to tackle both drug abuse and associated crime. They want to see cannabis use as an issue of social and health education, like cigarettes.

If it were decriminalised, how would it be sold?

Initially by registered individuals who are licensed by a local authority or other regulatory body to sell the drug, under legislation which would also guarantee consumer protection and quality control of the cannabis. Tax on revenue raised would be due in the same way it is for cigarettes.

If this was successful and workable, the 'cannabis cafe' model is the next stop as developed in the Netherlands.

Would legalisation of cannabis lead to legalisation of other drugs?

Not necessarily. Cannabis is a unique drug with which there is wide experience of use in millions of people and good, scientific research. Since the 1960s legalising cannabis or reducing penalties for its use, has generated support that far outstrips the case for any other illegal drug. However, drugs advice and support agencies, such as Release, are campaigning for a Royal Commission.

Drug Notes: Cannabis, price 95p, is published by the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, 1 Hatton Place, London, EC1N 8ND.

(Photograph omitted)

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