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YORKSHIRE POST:- Grahame Stowe: The folly over cannabis that is ruining lives

February 08 2008

FINALLY, it seems the Government has recognised David Blunkett's folly in relaxing drug laws in January 2004


Grahame Stowe: The folly over cannabis that is ruining livesFINALLY, it seems the Government has recognised David Blunkett's folly in relaxing drug laws in January 2004.Today the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) will hear a second day of evidence as part of its review into the classification of cannabis, a review that may lead to the drug being reclassified as Class B.

Amid growing concern that stronger strains of the drug were flooding British streets and emerging evidence on the long-term effects of use, one of Gordon Brown's first actions after moving into 10 Downing Street was to demand the classification issue be revisited.

The evidence on the street supports this concern, in particular the rise of so-called "skunk" – a potent form of cannabis that in just six years has escalated from 10 to upwards of 70 per cent of all cannabis consumption.

Unlike the herbal cannabis often associated with the rose-tinted haze of the 1960s, the review heard yesterday how modern skunk contains far higher levels of THC – the active ingredient in cannabis – and a much lower level of cannabidol, which many believe acts as an anti-psychotic and moderates the effect of the drug.

This shift to more potent strains of cannabis undermines the belief that cannabis is a harmless recreational drug – as its current Class C classification alongside some prescription anti-depressants and muscle building supplements suggests. This review would be an excellent time to recognise that no longer can "skunk" and more traditional cannabis be seen as the same drug, so vastly different are their effects.

The consequences of a reclassification are severe for those arrested. A conviction for possessing a Class B drug carries a maximum of five years in prison, three years more than with a Class C drug.

However, as recent headlines have made only too clear, the criminal justice system simply does not have the room to lock up hundreds of youths for smoking cannabis. A rash approach could be the final straw for a prison service bursting at the seams.

Those of us who have worked in the criminal and mental health spheres of the legal industry have been acutely aware for many years of the danger cannabis poses, and the long-term damage it causes.

This review has come too late for those who have already lost their minds and livelihoods to the drug, although it is still a case of better late than never.

The link to criminality is of particular interest to the reclassification debate. The criminal impact of hard drug use is well documented, but the impact of softer drugs is overlooked all too often.

Every week, we in the legal profession see the number of young people who commit a vast number of crimes as a direct result of drug abuse. Without any doubt, drugs are a major problem in our communities and I firmly believe the only approach that works is zero tolerance.

While cannabis use in the UK has apparently fallen since declassification, the increase in domestic cultivation of cannabis has proved a lucrative line for serious criminal enterprises, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers.

It is these criminal enterprises the police should be targeting, and if, as I expect, cannabis is reclassified, the implementation needs to be handled extremely delicately. The risk of widespread confusion as a generation of young users accustomed to a liberal attitude are suddenly criminalised is extremely worrying.

As I have seen on too many occasions, cannabis use can trigger a serious psychotic episode, or more severe long-term illness, for those susceptible to mental illness.

Of particular concern should be the growing number of under-15s who have become users since the drug's Class C status was introduced. The risk of developing schizophrenia can be between two and four times higher for these children and if left unchecked
we could see a mental illness epidemic entirely brought on by cannabis use.

These kinds of changes go far beyond the simple legality of behaviour and go to the heart of our culture towards drug use. The impact of cannabis is difficult to measure, as rarely is it used in isolation and nor can we ever have an accurate measure of its potency. Indeed, the only way to deliver that would be to legalise and regulate – a move that I believe would be catastrophic.

The Government needs to recognise what any criminal solicitor, prison guard or mental health worker sees every day – cannabis use is a catalyst to mental breakdown and crime.

Hopefully, now the Government will adopt a clear position on cannabis use and spare us another decade of uncertainty and confusion before any more lives are ruined.

Grahame Stowe is senior partner at the law firm Grahame Stowe Bateson.


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