Going To Pot?

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Nov 3, 2001.

  1. By Claire Ainsworth
    Source: New Scientist

    The great cannabis debate has been reignited in Britain by a government proposal to reclassify weed as a "softer" drug. If it's passed, Britain will be become one of many countries that are reducing the penalties for cannabis use.
    So is this move part of a dangerous liberal trend that will lead to an explosion in the use of cannabis and other, more dangerous drugs? Or is it a long overdue step that does not go far enough towards breaking the link between marijuana, hard drugs and crime?

    In Britain's three-tier classification system, cannabis is currently in Class B, along with amphetamines - a position that many argue is out of keeping with the danger it poses. The proposal is to reduce it to Class C, along with drugs such as anabolic steroids. This would mean milder penalties for possession, although it falls short of legalisation or decriminalisation.

    Supporters of the scheme argue that it will free up police to tackle more dangerous drugs such as crack. In 1999, nearly 70 per cent of people arrested for drugs offences in Britain were charged with possession of cannabis. Processing each offender can take a police officer up to three hours.

    What's more, figures from last year's British Crime Survey show that 44 per cent of 16 to 29-year-olds have tried cannabis at some point in their lives, with 22 per cent having used it in the last year. Clearly the law isn't holding everybody back. But will relaxing the law increase its use?

    The evidence from countries that have gone even further than Britain proposes to is clear. In the Netherlands, where authorities have tolerated cannabis use since the 1970s, there has been no significant increase in use (New Scientist, 21 February 1998, p 30).

    In South Australia, where users face civil sanctions such as fines rather than criminal penalties, there has been a small rise. But surveys by the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse between 1985 and 1993 showed that the rise was in line with that in states where use was still criminalised.

    Results were similar during the temporary decriminalisation of pot in 11 US states in the 1970s. It seems that cannabis consumption has more to do with individual tastes and popular culture than the law. Or maybe lax policing means that changing the law makes little difference.

    So reclassification is unlikely to result in an explosion of teenage potheads. What it could do is make youngsters more likely to trust the drugs information given by authorities. If those who take cannabis believe its legal status exaggerates the risks, they may be more likely to try more dangerous drugs.

    For this reason, several drugs charities have welcomed the reclassification proposal. "Young people in particular may be less inclined to try other substances if they have more accurate information on the potential risks of each one," says Roger Howard, chief executive of the charity DrugScope.

    But does cannabis lead to hard drugs regardless of what information is given? "Ecstasy killed my teenage daughter but her death began with that first cannabis joint," screamed a typical headline in one British tabloid last week.

    A study published last year revealed that 99 per cent of young New Zealanders who took hard drugs had started on cannabis. The link is undeniable, but it's not clear if cannabis really is a "gateway to hard drugs" or whether the kind of people who take dope are more likely to try hard drugs too.

    "I'm standing in the middle of the road on this debate," says David Fergusson of the Christchurch School of Medicine, who led the New Zealand study. His group actually set out to prove that progression to hard drugs is the result of people's personalities and peer group rather than the fact that they use cannabis. But they weren't able to.

    They followed 1265 New Zealanders from birth to the age of 21, gathering detailed information on their background and behaviour. They found that 70 per cent of the group had tried cannabis, and a quarter had tried other drugs. Although two-thirds of cannabis users did not progress to other illicit drugs, nearly all hard-drug users started off on cannabis. And heavy cannabis users were most at risk.

    Even when Fergusson took account of confounding factors, he found that there was still a link between heavy cannabis use and progression to harder drugs. "We have probably made the strongest effort anyone has made, but we cannot explain the correlation away," says Fergusson.

    So what is the connection, if any? The most obvious link is that many cannabis users are in regular contact with drug dealers who can make more money from drugs such as cocaine than from dope. "We need to consider the options available to us regarding supply," says Howard.

    The experience in the Netherlands, where allowing "coffee shops" to sell small amounts of dope means users don't usually come into contact with illegal dealers, suggests this does make some difference. According to an analysis published in Science in 1997, only 22 per cent of cannabis smokers in Amsterdam have tried cocaine, compared with 33 per cent of those in the US.

    So trying to separate the markets for cannabis and hard drugs such as cocaine does appear to weaken the gateway effect. "But whether you can separate them or not is a big question," says Michael Farrell, a consultant psychiatrist at the National Addiction Centre in London.

    Note: Reclassifying cannabis isn't enough to break the link to hard drugs.

    Source: New Scientist (UK)
    Author: Claire Ainsworth
    Published: November 3, 2001
    Copyright: New Scientist, RBI Limited 2001
    Contact: letters@newscientist.com
    Website: http://www.newscientist.com/

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