Cannabis is more popular and more dangerous

Since all cannabis is illegal, there is no way of telling people what's in the drugs they are smoking
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The Independent Online

An older, wiser Michael Howard might now be wowing the electorate with his exciting vision of whatever it is he's wowing the electorate with. But the younger, more ignorant Home Secretary he once was finds a stronger echo in David Davis. Every time he opens his mouth, whether it's to call for the return of hanging or to explain how smoking dope causes gun crime, Mr Davis sounds like a stand-up comic doing a Conservative-shadow-Home-Secretary routine.

Here he is telling one newspaper why the Tories, the very moment they attain office, will reverse Labour's reclassification of cannabis from a class-B to a class-C drug. "Half of new crime is drug-related," splutters Angry of Whitehall. "Speaking as a parent, I find the Government's mixed messages on drugs appalling."

What does this mean? What is "new crime". And why is Mr Davis speaking as a parent, when he's been asked his opinion as the shadow Home Secretary? The media can call on any number of parents who are appalled about drugs and confused about the Government's "mixed messages". What is Mr Davis saying to them? "Vote for me! I don't understand what's going on any better than you?"

Certainly, confused parents would not find a route out of their ignorance by listening to Mr Davis, or his party. Which is a pity, because now is the time to make a few noisy clarifications to the public about the reclassification of cannabis.

In just under three weeks, cannabis will stop being a class-B drug, like ecstasy, and become a class-C drug, like anabolic steroids. This is being done, says the Government, since it is important to differentiate between cannabis and more serious drugs such as cocaine, heroin and ecstasy.

Actually, cannabis was not previously a class-A drug anyway, so it has never been treated under the law in the same way as cocaine and heroin. And whether or not it is less or more dangerous than ecstasy is a moot point, especially now.

In the recent past, ecstasy has been considered more dangerous than cannabis because it is shown to have a depressive effect that can cause mental health problems for years to come. In the case of cannabis, it was previously accepted that, while there was a correlation between people with mental health problems and cannabis use, this was probably more to do with vulnerable people turning to self-medication than with cause and effect.

However, in the two years since the Government decided to downgrade cannabis, new evidence has come to light - and plenty of it - which indicates that among a tiny minority of vulnerable users, cannabis use can actually trigger psychosis, and even that there may be a particular link with schizophrenia. Six long-term studies from around the world have made the link, including one led by Professor Robin Murray, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley.

Professor Murray believes that cannabis users are seven times more at risk of developing mental illness than the population in general. "I would say this is now the number one problem facing mental health services in inner London... In south London, the incidence of psychosis has doubled since 1964."

This is music to the ears of those like Mr Davis, who continue after years of abject failure to believe in the idea that they can win "the war on drugs". They are mobilising Professor Murray's statistics to bolster their insistence that the reclassification of cannabis is wrong. But actually, this new information does nothing of the sort.

Practically speaking, the status of cannabis in our society remains unchanged. It remains an illegal drug, available only through illegal suppliers by illegal means. The degree of punishment for partaking in this illegal activity is all that has changed. The cannabis user who has a brush with the police is now likely only to be cautioned and to have his illicit substances confiscated - just as some police forces have been doing for years.

Police time, court time and prison places will all be saved, which are all good things. Yet since the proportion of people who avoid cannabis use simply because they may face a lengthy prison sentences in the unlikely event of capture is small, there is not likely to be a huge rise in use because of this change.

It is an insignificant change, which will mainly help to rationalise the treatment of cannabis users by the police and the courts. For the war-on-drugs types, though, it is a tiny step in entirely the wrong direction. Any sort of liberalisation of drugs is anathema to these people, and so their argument against this tweak is that the poor, stupid public doesn't understand the distinction, and that young people now believe that cannabis is legal.

Actually, I very much doubt that very many young people believe cannabis to be legal at all. They know, for example, that if cannabis was legal they'd be able to get Billie's big brother to buy them some from the off-licence where he gets their Bacardi Breezers. Instead, they still have to get Mark's big sister to get them some from her dealer, or alternatively nick a joint's-worth from the box in their parent's bedside drawer.

And actually, if cannabis were legal, they might be better off than they are now. At least the quality of the stuff they are smoking would be monitored. At least they would be able to choose between a giggly lump of Moroccan hashish and a scarily powerful bag of hydroponic skunk.

Unfortunately though, since all cannabis is illegal, there is no way of telling people what's in the drugs they are smoking, or of regulating the supply of cannabis to consumers. There is, however, a way of getting such information across to them, and this is through public information campaigns.

Cannabis is widely used now, and it is not a drug that is associated with crime in the way that heroin or crack cocaine is, no matter what Mr Davis claims. In the many years of its growing popularity in Britain, the market has evolved, as markets do. Without regulation, the market has become larger, and the product less stable and more dangerous to health.

At the same time, because of the public health risk, the Government has become more and more responsible for educating people about the dangers. It is important that there should be a campaign explain that some young people using cannabis may be vulnerable to serious mental health disorders, whatever classification cannabis has. But more crucially, it is about time that people like Mr Davis began to understand that economic liberalisation has helped to shape the drugs market just as much as it has any other.

The dream of Thatcherism and Reaganism was economic liberalisation and social conservatism. This would bring big money and small government. It should be obvious to both nations by now that the two aims are contradictory. Economic liberalisation, with the emphasis it places on freedom of choice for the individual, creates social liberalisation. And as society has become more liberal, the state has to be big, and to educate consumers about the choices it demands the freedom to make.

Mr Davis and his ilk only have to look at the development of society since their heroine was elected in 1979 to see this. Instead, they continue to insist that they can make a world in which liberty can be strictly controlled.