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The Danger Of Cannabis

The Herald, Editorial, 23rd January 2006

When David Blunkett announced his decision to reclassify cannabis, he described it as both scientifically justified and educationally sensible. In hindsight, it would appear to be neither. It is clear now that scientists still had much to discover about the harm cannabis can do, with several recent research papers showing that cannabis use significantly increases the likelihood of psychosis, depression and schizophrenia. Educationally, making cannabis a class-C drug has not, as the former home secretary had hoped, drawn a clearer line between "drugs that kill and drugs that cause harm". Instead, it has caused a great deal of confusion, with many users now under the mistaken belief that cannabis is legal and does no harm at all, according to experts.

Scottish Executive data revealed in The Herald today adds to the growing body of evidence that reclassification may have led to an increase in the use of the drug. It shows the number of patients treated for mental health and behavioural problems caused by cannabis has soared in the two years since the law changed. Numbers of hospital discharges after treatment for cannabis-related problems have more than trebled in the Lothians and doubled in the Greater Glasgow health board area. The figures, to be revealed in a parliamentary answer this week, are still relatively small when compared to tobacco or alcohol use, but they remain significant, particularly in light of previous scientific research.

A report published recently in the British Medical Journal claimed cannabis smoking could be responsible for up to 30,000 deaths a year, due to a cocktail of 4000 chemicals that the users inhale. Research by British psychiatric experts found that children who started taking cannabis at 15 increased their risk of psychosis in later life by 450%. Young people, whose minds are still developing, are clearly more at risk of damage from the drug. It would seem they are also most likely to see reclassification as a green light to take it. Police figures revealed in The Herald at the end of last year showed the number of under-16s charged with supply or possession of drugs had risen by 13% since the change in Britain's drugs laws. Children as young as 10 had been caught with cannabis.

The task now is to find an effective way to tackle these problems. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, last week ruled out the most obvious solution: a reversal of his predecessor's decision. His judgment, taken after a nine-month review of medical evidence linking cannabis to schizophrenia, is right. That review showed cannabis was, indeed, having an effect on the mental health of young users and Mr Clarke has accepted that. Yet he felt that reclassifying cannabis again would only add to the current confusion that is clearly causing so much harm.

Instead of tightening up the law, the government is now planning an educational campaign to highlight the risks of cannabis. The Scottish Executive is also committed to an update of its public message on the drug. That would be a positive move, but only if it is resourced properly and engages fully. Such campaigns need to be hard-hitting. They need to do for cannabis what the government's Aids campaign did for unprotected sex in the 1980s: instill in young people a healthy fear of the consequences. It is all too clear now that those consequences can be dire indeed.

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