JOHN NAISH: The deadly truth about why Mayor of London’s plan to legalise cannabis is his dopiest idea yet
The pungent smell of cannabis on Britain’s streets and in its parks is hard to escape. People openly smoke and share joints, or even deal it, safe in the knowledge they are unlikely to be apprehended, let alone punished.
Yet cannabis is a class B drug and possessing or selling products that contain THC — the drug’s psychoactive compound — is illegal.
Now, it seems, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is set to challenge the status quo with his announcement that, should he be re-elected for a second term next month, he will set up an independent drugs review to examine the health, economic and criminal justice benefits of decriminalising cannabis.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has vowed to commission an independent report on the potential health, economic and criminal justice benefits of legalising cannabis if he is re-elected next month
Almost 42,000 people in England and Wales were charged with drug-related offences last year, while the illegal drugs trade costs Britain some £19 billion a year. Legalising and regulating the sale of cannabis could raise around £1 billion for the Treasury
He says there is widespread public support for legalising cannabis for adult recreational use and that fresh ideas are needed to counter the illegal drugs trade and free up the police.
Almost 42,000 people in England and Wales were charged with drug-related offences last year, while the illegal drugs trade costs Britain some £19 billion a year. Legalising and regulating the sale of cannabis could raise around £1 billion for the Treasury.
Three years ago, Khan confessed that he had smoked cannabis while in Amsterdam ‘a long, long time ago’. Perhaps that admission is meant to bolster his credibility.
I’ll go one further: in the 1980s, while in my early 20s, I was arrested and cautioned in Brixton, South-West London, for possessing a paltry lump of cannabis. Nowadays, as a science journalist, my beliefs on the subject are based on the best evidence available.
My conclusion? We need to keep the possession and sale of cannabis a criminal offence.
Thousands of people across the country believe that cannabis should be legalised
These people attended a cannabis legalisation event in London’s Hyde Park in April 20, 2014
It may be that Khan is suffering some cannabis-related short-term memory loss. It is a mere 12 years since we were last heading down this road — with ruinous results. Thanks to campaigning by liberal-thinking Metropolitan Police leaders in 2004, cannabis was declassified from Class B to Class C (the same category as bodybuilding steroids).
After five years in which possession of the drug was merely a slapped-wrist matter, the drug was reclassified as a Class B drug again.
Why? Because policymakers witnessed a serious rise in cases of cannabis-induced psychosis and other mental problems, particularly among young people. In the past decade or more, the health risks of the decriminalisation of cannabis — as many countries have learned to their cost — have not changed.
Addictive drug for teenagers
Even in medical/scientific circles, cannabis was once regarded as a non-addictive substance that, at worst, caused emotional dependence in a few susceptible individuals. But with the advent of vastly more potent strains of the drug, particularly in the past 15 years, few experts subscribe to that view today.
Research published in last month’s edition of the American medical journal JAMA Pediatrics found that 11 per cent of teenagers who start taking marijuana [cannabis] report that they are dependent a year later.
The survey of 11,000 young people by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that one in five teenagers who smokes cannabis over a three-year period develops an addictive disorder.
Major influence on mental illness
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has warned that ‘in countries where marijuana has been decriminalised, young people often come to think of smoking marijuana as safe. It isn’t. It increases the risk of long-term psychiatric problems such as depression or psychosis.’ Indeed, a 2019 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry of more than 23,000 people found that the risk of depression among young adults who regularly smoked cannabis was more than a third higher than normal. Their risk of attempting suicide more than trebled.
Potency hitting new heights
Researchers agree that the rapid rise in mental health problems such as addiction and depression is being driven by huge increases in the strength of street cannabis.
The compound THC has been boosted through intensive industrial propagation by illegal growers. THC produces the euphoric high users feel. It also distorts one’s sense of time. But its mind-bending properties can be much darker in the long term.
Last year, Bath University researchers reported in the journal Addiction on their study of more than 80,000 street samples of cannabis collected in the U.S., UK and Europe over the past 50 years.THC concentrations had risen by up to a quarter between 1975 and 2017.
Last year, Bath University researchers reported in the journal Addiction on their study of more than 80,000 street samples of cannabis collected in the U.S., UK and Europe over the past 50 years.THC concentrations had risen by up to a quarter between 1975 and 2017
‘This isn’t your dad’s drug any more,’ one expert said.
A report in journal Significance emphasised THC’s role in causing cannabis psychosis, where ‘symptoms can include hallucinations, difficulty thinking, a reduced ability to solve problems, apathy and a distorted sense of reality. These can affect not just the users’ lives but the lives of those around them.’
Dangerous trigger for psychosis
The mental damage caused by more potent forms of cannabis was starkly demonstrated two years ago by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.
In journal The Lancet Psychiatry, the researchers said that at least 90 per cent of the cannabis consumed in London is super-strength (typically called ‘skunk’) and that almost a third of new cases of psychosis in the capital are linked to the use of such high-potency dope.
The authors estimated that up to a half of new cases of psychosis in London and Amsterdam may be linked to daily use of hyper-strong cannabis. If this type was no longer available, the researchers predicted that incidence of psychosis in London would drop by about 50 per cent.
Physical risks are just as great
A 2019 Harvard Medical School report warned that the risk of suffering a potentially lethal heart attack is significantly raised in the hour after smoking marijuana.
There are also links to a higher risk of dangerous heartbeat abnormalities and strokes immediately following cannabis use.
Women’s fertility may also be endangered. Human eggs exposed to THC have an impaired ability to produce viable embryos and are significantly less likely to result in a viable pregnancy, according to biologists at the University of Guelph in Canada.
Gateway to higher crime levels
Proponents of the decriminalisation of cannabis often argue that its strength could be kept within safer limits if it were properly regulated and licensed for sale.
However, lessons from Colorado — which in 2014 became the first U.S. state to legalise the production and sale of non-medicinal cannabis to customers aged over 21 — suggest the opposite is the case.
Instead of banishing the illegal market in cannabis, the state’s legalisation has boosted it. This is because the legally available product is taxed — doubling its price.
Growers and customers have resorted to illicit production and sale, which is now far harder to detect because enforcement officers have no easy way to tell which cannabis is legal and which is illegal.
Such increased crime causes untold ripple effects. In the city of Colorado Springs, the district attorney, Dan May, has called cannabis a ‘gateway drug to homicide’.
Of the 22 murders in the city in 2016, eight were related to the drug, he said.
Overwhelmed by ‘drug-driving’
Legalisation might not improve product regulation — but it certainly increases consumption.
The journal JAMA Psychiatry reports that in American states that have legalised marijuana, problematic use among adolescents aged 12 to 17 is 25 per cent higher than in states where the drug’s recreational use remains illegal.
Among adults aged 26 or older, past-month marijuana use after legalisation is 26 per cent higher than in non-recreational states.
The result, inevitably, is a rise in driving under the influence of drugs — or drug-driving.
Britain already has a serious problem with this issue. In the UK from 2018 to 2019, nearly 20,000 motorists were convicted for being under the influence of drugs, the highest figure ever
Britain already has a serious problem with this issue. In the UK from 2018 to 2019, nearly 20,000 motorists were convicted for being under the influence of drugs, the highest figure ever.
And it is not only in urban environments. Statistics from Suffolk Police last year showed a 20 per cent increase in drug-driving annually, with arrests for this reason overtaking those for drink-driving for the first time.
Backtracking on decriminalisation
Around the world, some city authorities are regretting their efforts to lead the world in cannabis decriminalisation — not least Amsterdam, a destination synonymous with a free and easy approach to smoking dope.
The city’s mayor, Femke Halsema, wants to ban foreign tourists from the teeming coffee shops — also known as cannabis cafes — where they can legally purchase supplies.
She is backing the tens of thousands of residents who are fed up with the anti-social behaviour associated with the cafes.
Meanwhile, in Christiania, the once-thriving hippy freetown in the heart of the Danish capital Copenhagen, police are cracking down on cannabis sales because of behavioural problems.
Local hospitals are complaining about the number of tourists and locals being rushed in with overdose symptoms such as low heart rates, unconsciousness and psychosis.
Last month, the authorities charged 25 people with selling the drug in Christiania — where such deals were once considered the lifeblood of the area.
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