Leading article: Our criminal ignorance of cannabis

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The Independent Online

When The Independent on Sunday campaigned for the decriminalisation of cannabis, we reflected the common view among informed opinion that the drug was less dangerous than either tobacco or alcohol. So widespread did that view become that our editorial line was followed within a few years by The Daily Telegraph. No wonder people were confused.

Now that confusion, which was perhaps inevitable as changes in public opinion, government policy and scientific research interacted, has become a real problem.

The Government responded slowly to the liberalisation of attitudes, in which our campaign played a part. In 2001 David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs whether cannabis should be downgraded from class B to the least serious category of illegal drugs, class C. The council said it should, although the change did not take place until January 2004. The delay in implementing the change meant that for some time the formal legal position was out of line with police practice.

To add to that mixed message, the Government failed to grasp the difficulty of saying in the same breath that cannabis would be taken less seriously by the police, but that it was still illegal. Mr Blunkett promised "an innovative public awareness campaign on drugs aimed at young people". His successor, Charles Clarke, promised "a massive programme of public education to convey the danger of cannabis use". Maybe they happened. Perhaps millions of pounds of taxpayers' money was spent on them. But this is a tough communications challenges: to get an honest and therefore complex message across to an unreceptive audience.

Meanwhile, the evidence of a link between cannabis and psychosis among a minority of users was growing stronger. That meant that no sooner had cannabis been downgraded in the eyes of the law than most credible authorities began to warn it was considerably more dangerous than previously thought. That evidence led this newspaper, in March, to renounce its campaign to decriminalise cannabis. We felt the evidence forced us to choose between our campaigns for better understanding of mental health issues and our liberal instinct.

At that time, we said that we thought the existing law was about right. But that cannot be the end of the matter. For most people, cannabis is not as dangerous as amphetamines (class B) or heroin (class A); the trouble is that you cannot be sure who is susceptible to the risk of serious psychological harm. For those people, cannabis can be as destructive of personality as any other illegal drug. Unfortunately, although we reported in May the development of a simple test that could identify vulnerability to cannabis-induced psychosis, it will not be generally available for several years. Until then, it makes sense for everyone to treat cannabis as potentially harmful.

Today, we report a further complication. One of the arguments for reclassifying cannabis as less serious was that users did not tend to steal to pay for their habit. But disturbing new research suggests otherwise. Our own investigations suggest cannabis use is high and rising among young offenders, and an academic study in Sheffield suggests one in four young offenders has stolen to pay for cannabis.

All the evidence suggests that, even if the present legal framework is right, it is not working. As we also report today, many young people think that cannabis is legal and harmless. They are not aware that, according to Home Office guidelines, under-18s should be arrested for possession of cannabis and taken to a police station for a reprimand. Again, there is confusion, because the rules for adults are different: they are "unlikely" to be arrested for a first offence.

There are no magic ways of bringing clarity to this muddle. Public information campaigns may have a role to play, although they have not succeeded so far. The simpler the message, the better, and the simplest is that cannabis is dangerous and illegal.

Consistent policing is also important. It is not clear that most police forces have a zero-tolerance approach to smoking cannabis in public places, which is essential to reinforce the message that the drug is illegal.

Finally, the Government needs to continue to put more money into drug treatment. It would be counterproductive to put more people in prison for using cannabis or any other illegal drug. As Professor Rod Morgan writes on page 38, criminalising young people is no answer. The best way to get across information about the health risks of cannabis is to make it a medical or mental health issue rather than one of criminal justice.

In July, Jacqui Smith, the new Home Secretary, began the third big review of government policy towards illegal drugs in recent years. Let us hope she achieves the clarity, the effective policing and the priority for treatment that eluded her predecessors.