Cannabis is losing
Contrary to claims that there has been an explosion in use since the government downgraded the classification of cannabis from Class B to Class C in January 2004, a new study has found that the increase in regular use fell to just 0.5 per cent in 2004, compared with 45 per cent at its peak in 1998. At the same time, the drug’s image has slumped from the high days of the Nineties to a historic low.
’Our first indications are that [the change in the law] has essentially had no effect at all in user levels of cannabis,’ says Matthew Atha, director of the Independent Drugs Monitoring Unit, which carried out the study.
The research asked 2,056 respondents to give cannabis a ’user-rating’ out of 10, based on factors such as perceived addictive potential, the health risks and the high they got. The higher the user rating, the more glamorous the drug. Cannabis has slipped from a peak of 8.8 in 1997 to a low of 7.6 last year, while in the same period ecstasy, crack and heroin ratings have all risen.
’When the user rating falls it is like a drug is going out of fashion,’ said Atha. ’It is also a good indicator of intention to use and whether someone is likely to become a regular user.’
The 10-year survey shows that after the government began talking about reclassification in 2001, the user rating of cannabis fell below eight for the first time.
Steve Rolles, of the drugs policy think tank Transform, says: ’This research backs up numerous other studies that show how drug policy and levels of enforcement have, at best, a marginal impact on levels of use. The recent fuss over reclassification is all about election politics and drug war posturing. It’s nothing to do with the science, which is well researched and well understood.’
But some experts warn that it is too early properly to understand the impact of the reclassification. ’It is dangerous to try and assess overall trends in a 12-month period,’ says Mike Trace, who was the government’s deputy drugs tsar between 1997 and 2002. ’But one of the fears of reclassification was that there would be a sudden leap in use, and this shows that has not happened.’
The study follows Home Secretary Charles Clarke’s call for the Misuse Of Drugs Advisory Board to review the reclassification after new studies highlighted the link between cannabis use among teenagers and mental health problems. But one of the authors of the Dutch study Clarke referred to told the Today programme on Radio 4 last week that the results should not be used to argue against legalisation. Dr Lydia Krabbendam of Maastricht University, whose study showed that adolescents who use cannabis regularly over a four-year period were twice as likely to develop psychosis, said: ’I don’t think the effects of cannabis can be used as an argument not to legalise it. It is probably very hard to ban it altogether, and if you legalise it you can regulate the amounts of THC [the active ingredient within cannabis]’.
Meanwhile, a survey released today shows that teenagers place illegal drugs at the bottom of the list of ways to get high. The study by the government drugs awareness campaign, Frank, shows that more than one in four 11- to 19-year-olds get their ’best buzz’ from winning at their favourite sport. Only three per cent said that drugs gave them the best high.