The cannabis debate has again come to the fore in recent months with a widely followed Home Affairs Select Committee on drug use, and a British Lung Foundation report on cannabis. This report highlighted two astonishing points.
First, that smoking a joint is more harmful than smoking twenty cigarettes. Second, that only 12 per cent of people know this (myself not included). Even more worryingly, one in three believed that it caused no health problems whatsoever.
It also evidenced a rise in the number of users amongst 18 to 24 year olds, with an overall decline in cigarette smokers. Apparently then, most students have a completely false view over what they are taking. Whilst I’ve never met someone who thought it was harmless, most have viewed it as a safer alternative.
However, the report is slightly misleading. It focuses on the comparison between smoking a joint versus smoking twenty cigarettes each day for a year. But does that describe most cannabis users? Most can be described as recreational users, whereas smokers do so habitually. Use among our age group usually involves smoking, the most harmful form of cannabis consumption. However, the cannabis cigarettes are often shared in groups, infrequently.
Thus, although numbers of tobacco and cannabis users are broadly comparable, 84 per cent of lung cancer deaths are attributed to cigarettes. This then begs the question why cannabis is illegal yet tobacco is not.
I think that any debate on decriminalisation should begin ignorant of current legality. Therefore, it is useful to consider tobacco. In light of concerted government campaigns and steps such as raising the age to purchase and banning their display in shops, usage has fallen, most crucially amongst teenagers.
This highlights the success of education and defacilitation, versus expensive and ineffective drug crackdowns.
I believe that a cannabis campaign on a similar scale would reduce use more than reinforcing its illegality ever could. Incorporating into the curriculum the health hazards of cannabis to the same extent as nicotine cigarettes would suffice to this end. Has any person ever not taken drugs solely for fear of prosecution?
The reasoning is usually worry over social stigma or the damage to one’s health. In most student environments, experimenting is almost expected of you, leaving only the latter as a serious impediment.
This helps frame the Committee’s inquiry, hearing evidence from notable figures such as Peter Hitchens and Russell Brand.
Whilst we should be wary of acting on the advice on any one man, on the issue of deterring drug dependants it seems prudent to trust a former heroin addict more than a Mail on Sunday journalist (though this is generally a good rule of thumb).
They clashed over whether a truly hard-line approach would prevent use, with Brand saying that to a drug addict, prison is a mere “administrative blip”.
Meanwhile, any comparison between legal and illegal drugs in the classroom signalled doom for Hitchens, who maintained that it “confuses the mind of the child”. Although this may be true for younger students, I do hope that by the time you’re a teenager you are able to distinguish between a line of sherbet and one of cocaine.
It seems that there are two foundations for any person’s view on extra-criminalisation versus decriminalisation; the nature of legality, and the nature of addiction.
If you believe that what is legal always describes what is right, and that any user is an addict, then you will fall firmly in Hitchen’s camp. Yet if you see a discrepancy between the harmfulness of legal drugs such as tobacco versus cannabis, and you believe in the possibility of use without abuse, then a stance of decriminalisation seems tenable.
For me, it is clear that the best strategy is a full and frank discussion to discourage use with the flexibility and compassion that can never be afforded by an authoritarian approach.