Cannabis, top-up fees and others

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Reclassification of cannabis will put added pressure on NHS

Reclassification of cannabis will put added pressure on NHS

Sir: The Conservative leader is being quoted as stating that he would reverse the decision of this government to reclassify cannabis to a class C drug (report, 22 January). We are concerned that the imminent reclassification of cannabis has not taken the most recent evidence into account.

Over the past few years, our knowledge of the adverse impact of cannabis on mental health has increased substantially. There is considerable clinical evidence linking cannabis use to mental illness, especially schizophrenia, psychosis, anxiety and depression. The risk of developing mental illness, especially psychosis, is increased with earlier and heavier cannabis use.

A person who uses cannabis by age 15 has more than a four-fold increased risk of developing schizophrenia symptoms over the next 11 years compared with a person starting to use cannabis by age 18. Eighteen-year-olds who have used cannabis 50 times have a nearly seven-fold increased risk of developing psychosis over the next 15 years. Up to 80 per cent of new cases of psychosis currently seen in some psychiatric hospitals are triggered by cannabis abuse.

Psychiatric services, especially in London, are near crisis point due to cannabis-induced mental illness. Over the past three decades, a doubling of the prevalence of schizophrenia has been observed in London. While it is too early to say whether this is due to the increase in cannabis abuse over the past decades, this possibility cannot be discounted on current evidence.

In addition, cannabis has significant negative effects on intellectual functioning, including learning, concentration and educational achievement. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence linking cannabis to road traffic accidents and violent crime. There is increasing evidence on the adverse physical effects of smoking cannabis. Three to four cannabis cigarettes are as damaging to the airways as 20 nicotine cigarettes day. Severe lung damage due to bronchitis and emphysema, but also head and neck cancers have been observed in young cannabis users.

We believe that further research needs to be carried out to establish the exact impact that increasing cannabis abuse will have on the health service, especially on mental health and accident and emergency services as well as the criminal justice and educational systems. We are concerned that the imminent reclassification of cannabis will send out the message that cannabis is harmless and legal, thereby increasing cannabis abuse with all the adverse effects on an already overstretched NHS.

Director of drugs training programme, Royal College of General Practitioners
London SW7

Division of Psychiatry, University of Newcastle

Immediate past President, Coroners Society of England and Wales

Leigh, Lancashire

Clarke's US-style university market

Sir: In Westminster's current hothouse atmosphere of excitement about whether or not the Government will muster a majority for top-up fees, something crucial is in danger of being lost sight of: that Charles Clarke's proposals are a Trojan Horse.

The top-up fees are supposed to be only £3,000, but it is already clear that, if the proposals become law, then almost all universities will start out charging the full £3,000. As a result, some university administrations will demand higher fees still, and, in no time at all, students will be faced with bills of maybe £10,000 or more per year, as is the case in the USA.

Once the principle of variable fees is accepted, then the floodgates will be open to full "marketisation" of British degrees. This would be a disgraceful thing for a Labour government to bring into being.

Clarke and Blair tell us not to worry. They promise that what you see is what you will get; that fees will not be raised above inflation in the next parliament. They must think the electorate - not to mention their colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party - are fools. For, what did Labour's last manifesto promise? It promised, in plain and undeniable English, that Labour would not introduce top-up fees at all ....

As should be plain, then, I am very much in disagreement with The Independent's editorial line on "top-up fees". Like many other university lecturers, I hope earnestly that the rebels will keep their nerve, and that these dreadful plans for large variable fees will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
University of East Anglia

Sir: Tony Blair's rationale for top-up fees is a nonsense. There are many other instances of the taxpayer paying for training which benefits the individual.

What about all those who leave school at 16? Why should they pay for those who stay on for A-levels?

Then there is the training of public servants. The Inland Revenue, for instance, provides a two-year training programme for inspectors with "full technical training". During that training those taking the course receive their full Civil Service salary. Many leave later for the private sector, where they are in much demand as tax consultants.

Nurses receive a salary whilst training. Once trained they have a skill which allows them to earn a steady income not merely in Britain but around the world.

A second error or dishonesty in Blair's arguments is the claim that graduates will earn on average £400,000 more during their working lives than non-graduates. Even if this is true of graduates at present, as a guide to the future it is worthless. When half or more of the population has a degree, the scarcity value will be much less.

London NW1

Sir The Government's policy on tuition fees will inevitably lead to demographic changes.

It is highly likely that one graduate will marry another, which will mean starting out life together with a combined debt of £30,000 to £60,000. They may have to delay starting a family until debts have been paid. This will lead to an even higher proportion of the population starting families later in life and consequently to a corresponding reduction in the birth rate.

The young should be starting out their lives full of optimism and confidence. The present scheme allows this only for the wealthy and the highly intelligent - plus ça change!

Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

Sir: Dan Baird, a medical student, writes (letter, 19 January): "It seems absurd that something that benefits me so directly should be paid for by others". Mr Baird has missed the point. The principal beneficiary of his medical education is society generally; we all need doctors. The personal benefit to Mr Baird is an incidental. It is in the interests of all of us to have an educated population, and we should be happy to pay for it.


After Meadow

Sir: The re-examination of the judgements of Professor Sir Roy Meadow's child welfare cases shows the urgent need to reinvigorate, and in some ways reinvent, professional social work. The suggestion from Deborah Orr (22 January) that there should be no "ready reckoners" in childcare cases, and that there is a need to "listen to the testimony of parents, siblings, teachers and others" is exactly why we need high-quality social workers.

Their complex task is to gather, analyse, and present the full picture of a child's life, but their salaries are very low, their work is criticised as not expert enough, and they often lack professional support for their practice from policies and procedures that focus more on managerialism than professionalism.

These social workers are paid less than teachers, trained less than doctors, and supported in their professional task less than lawyers. It is vital that we address these issues if we are to improve the decision-making for some of the most vulnerable children and families in our society.

Professor of Child and Family Welfare, University of Sheffield

Sir: Deborrah Orr criticises the way medical experts "assist" the Courts. I wonder whether she really believes that judges are led by the nose or form their own view. Since the Woolf reforms took place all experts have been required to explain why they offer that particular opinion and why it may differ from that of their peers.

Case law has highlighted that opinion must not only be in line with current practice, but must also withstand "rational analysis". The courts have also indicated that experts must not stray from their field of expertise.

The General Medical Council takes a very serious view on this and is due to investigate Professor Meadow's actions on this matter. An injustice has been done, but that does not mean that expertise should be discounted.

Consultant Psychiatrist
London NW2

Tory women

Sir: The problem with the Conservative Party's candidate selection process is that it is not a meritocratic system, it is a discriminatory system (report, 20 January). Research by the Fawcett Society shows that prospective women candidates are frequently discriminated against in the candidate selection process. As a result, women make up less than 10 per cent of Conservative MPs.

A prospective Conservative candidate that Fawcett interviewed was asked, "If you got the seat and were in Westminster during the week, what would your husband do for sex?'

It is not only unfair, it is an enormous waste of talent. Domestic and international evidence clearly shows that the only way to eliminate this kind of discrimination is to use positive action mechanisms, such as all-women shortlists and twinning.

Policy Officer
Fawcett Society
London EC1

Iraq inquiry

Sir: Long ago The Independent pointed out that the issue of the invasion of Iraq is not part of Lord Hutton's remit. Even if his report clears the Prime Minister in respect of Dr Kelly's death, the war issue will remain at his door. We must expect spinners to pretend that it does not, that Hutton has closed the matter.

Recent authoritative disclosures in the US prove that the war was indeed planned long ago, and was indeed given spurious justification. Mr Blair lent his enthusiastic support. This - so far as I can see - can be explained in only two possible ways: was he content to connive in the invasion, knowing that he and the US administration were, and still are, misleading their own people, in which case he stands as a rogue. Or was he led by the nose, in which case he is revealed as a fool.

Is it too much to hope that Parliament will set party and electoral considerations aside for a bit, and insist on a proper and powerful inquiry?


Film credits

Sir: I take exception to Lorraine Heggessey (report, 21 January) as saying that TV (and by extension film) credits are only of interest to the actors and their families. I am a hopelessly addicted credit junkie and am thus usually among the last to leave a cinema, frequently getting in the way of the cleaners and often risking being locked in.

The habit does have its perks, though - the post-credit "bonus" scenes at the end of Chicken Run, say, or Pirates of the Caribbean were well worth the wait.

I would agree with Equity's concerns, therefore, but would add the current TV practice of squeezing the credits illegibly to one side to make room for a trailer for the next programme or, worse, a trailer for next week's episode of the programme we've only just finished watching. Anyone care to form a pressure group?


Free choice  

Sir: I remain confused regarding the opinions of Dr Susan Blackmore (Features, 21 January). She advocates the legalised use of drugs, but goes on to write that she would "love to live in a country where [private schools] weren't allowed". What, exactly, are her views on the value of the individual's freedom of choice, if any?


Wake-up call

Sir: Having just returned from a week's (not) skiing in the Alps, sat indoors in the Haute Savoie region of France at 6,000 feet in the coldest month of the year watching the rain (yes rain) come down day after day ... is it not time that America wakes up and sees what is happening to global temperatures and signs up to the Kyoto Protocol without further prevarication - election year or not? And Russia also, and now Australia too.


Arab awareness

Sir: In response to Barbara Lewis's letter (22 January) in which she claims that Arab readers do not distinguish between "American-born settlers" and Jews, I can reassure you that they do. I have long travelled in the Middle East and discussed this topic with many a Muslim. They are in general very aware of the difference between Jews and Zionists, much as they distinguish between their fellow Muslims and dangerous extremists. They also know that many Jews champion the Palestinian cause.


President's presence

Sir: Since the fate of this planet (and others) depends on the actions of the world's superpower, eligibility to vote in America's presidential election should be extended. Your front page (20 January) indicates that the US has a military presence in 130 countries. Their populations would constitute a natural extension to the existing Presidential electorate, since they are surely both sympathetic and informed about America and its aspirations.