LONDON-The use of stronger varieties of cannabis can lead to psychosis, according to newly published findings in The Lancet medical journal.
Alternately, the use of cannabis can lead to the corridors of power, as evidenced by the recent admissions of past indulgences by at least 11 senior members of the new British government under Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Put these two disparate facts together and you have a reviving marijuana debate in the United Kingdom, where the demon weed is making a return appearance in the court of public opinion barely three years after it was reclassified to a status many believed to be verging on almost legal.
That legal status is again in doubt in the wake of the government’s announcement last week of a policy review that could see cannabis restored as a Class B illegal drug, complete with harsher penalties for possession and up to 14 years in prison for trafficking.
U.K. drug-policy experts say the British press is at the forefront of the shifting public attitudes toward marijuana, fed on a diet of headlines that too often emphasize fear over rational evidence. But even the experts acknowledge concern that more needs to be known about the potential harm of potent strains of marijuana believed to contain substantially greater concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot.
A major driver in the debate is The Independent on Sunday, which ended a decade-long campaign for the decriminalization of marijuana in March with a dramatic front-page mea culpa under the banner headline, “Cannabis: An apology.” The paper declared it was reversing its position in light of the dual evidence of cannabis’s mutation into a much stronger form and also because of evidence showing it could cause psychological harm.
“We are not hiding from anything. The previous campaign ( for decriminalization ) was in a different time under a different editor,” Jonathan Owen, who reports on cannabis issues for The Independent, told the Toronto Star.
“That aside, in light of the emerging evidence we reserve the right to modify opinion. We are not here to stand on a pulpit, but at the same time we thought it was sensible to inform people that cannabis use does carry risks for some people.”
But The Independent’s warnings are moderate compared to the efforts of some tabloids, which have produced yarns hearkening back to the era of Reefer Madness.
Many U.K. drug-policy analysts welcome the Brown government’s policy review, noting that the advisory council charged with vetting the latest science on the government’s behalf will serve to bring more light than heat to a sensitive and emotionally charged issue.
“There is a lot of absolute nonsense being reported in terms of the media coverage. But once the government’s advisory council interrogates things based on the actual evidence, I find it difficult to see what might change their mind about cannabis law as it exists now,” said Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, a U.K. charity dedicated to drug policy research.
“It is right to keep the legal status under review because the U.K. cannabis market has changed substantially in the last 10 years,” he said.
Many drug-policy experts liken the comparison of conventional pot with higher potency strains to the difference between lager and whisky. What’s missing, they say, is research on how users are consuming the stronger pot.
“What does it mean that cannabis is stronger? Does it mean people are rolling fewer joints or inhaling less deeply? Or are they actually ingesting much higher amounts of THC into their system as a consequence?” asked Ben Lynam, spokesperson for the U.K. Drug Policy Commission ( UKDPC ). “We aren’t yet able to have an informed debate on this because some of the evidence just isn’t there.”
What is known, ironically, is that cannabis use is in decline among young Britons, according to figures cited by the UKDPC. Barely 10 per cent of 11-to-15-year-olds used pot at least once in 2006, compared with 13.1 per cent in 2003. Among 16-to-24-year-olds, 21.4 per cent reported using cannabis in 2006, compared to 28.2 per cent in 2003.
“Overall we are seeing a slow and steady decline in cannabis use in the U.K. over the past five or six years,” said Lynam. “Why? Who knows? They might be drinking more. But going by the evidence, the shift of cannabis to Class C drug status, with the reduction of penalties for possession, does not appear to have had any bearing on this trend one way or another.”
Toronto Star (CN ON) Copyright: 2007 The Toronto Star