Kicked into the weed

Safety isn't an argument against legalisation

2nd March 2018

The cannabis on Britain’s streets is getting stronger, a study released earlier this week by researchers from King’s College and GW Pharma, a large medicinal cannabis company, revealed.

Or at least, that’s the simple explanation.

What the report actually shows is that the proportion of cannabis seized by police which is deemed to be “high-potency skunk” has risen dramatically in just over 10 years, when compared with a study by the same group – from 51% in 2005, to 94% in 2016, though a study carried out by the Home Office put the figure at 85% back in 2008.

Though it’s important to point out that it’s impossible to know if this is true of cannabis in general throughout the country, it’s safe to say this is representative of the type of weed you’d be likely to buy “on the streets”.

So what’s changed in UK cannabis policy since 2005? Well for one, in 2008, cannabis was rescheduled from a Class C substance to Class B, putting it in the same category as barbiturates and amphetamines, while famously benign drugs like GHB and Ketamine remain in Class C. The motive behind this move was obviously to crack down on cannabis smokers, and the figures show that it had very little effect one way or another – but could it have inadvertently brought about this increase in potency? Well, correlation sure ain’t causation, but it’s possible.

All the main harms of cannabis are caused by the fact that it is prohibited and the market is controlled by criminals

Peter Reynolds, head of Clear UK, a cannabis legalisation group, explains his thoughts on the study.

“First off, what it proves, is that criminalisation of cannabis does absolutely nothing to make users of cannabis, or cannabis itself safer. All the main harms of cannabis are caused by the fact that it is prohibited and the market is controlled by criminals.”

During the prohibition-era in America when alcohol was banned, there emerged a clandestine industry of brewers who supplied the illicit demand. Because of the risks, the costs involved and because they were generally bad dudes, those guys didn’t brew 4% craft lagers or a nice rose, they distilled 90+ proof spirits. This meant that anyone who wanted a nice, casual drink had no choice but to risk buying gin that could literally blind them.

The same is, to an extent, true today of our cannabis market. Those who are trying to make a lot of money from selling cannabis on the street typically prefer to grow higher potency strains – meaning that’s what the consumer gets, even if that’s not necessarily what they want.

Cannabis and mental health

The link between cannabis and mental ill-health has been long debated by scientists. It’s fair to say that fears held by previous generations were, at best, overstated but it’s equally true that we’re now certain about some negative effects, particularly on young people’s brains, for instance.

As well as this, we now have a much better understanding of what cannabis is made up of and how its different molecules do different things to our bodies.

As you’ve likely heard from your stoner-bore mate (if you are the stoner-bore mate, feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two), there are basically two types of weed; sativa and indica. The difference is basically that one makes you want to sit on your couch for a year, the other makes you wonder what the couch is made of, how many components it contains and how it was put together, also are we ordering a takeaway?

The different effects of each strain are determined by a few factors, but mainly the balance of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) (In case you were wondering who’s the weed-bore among my friends, I spelled both those words from memory). The former is the psychoactive, high-inducing molecule, and the latter has more medicinal benefits, also seemingly counters some of the harmful effects of THC. Thus the need for a balance of the two.

Many in the scientific community think there’s a link between cannabis with a high proportion of THC to CBD and cannabis psychosis, or other mental health issues. The jury isn’t quite out on the full extent of this link, but what’s certain is that for some people – possibly those with a predisposition toward mental illness – exposure to high THC cannabis can cause serious problems. And that’s why this report is of concern, because more and more of the cannabis that is on the streets has a much higher proportion of THC to CBD than in the past.  

Reynolds acknowledges the potential risks with high-THC cannabis but is quick to put the problem into context.

“It is clear that to a very small number of people [high-THC cannabis] can be very dangerous, but what’s glossed over in all the reporting on these studies, is that even with the highest THC cannabis, the risk of cannabis consumption correlating with a diagnosis of psychosis is about 1 in 20,000 – compare that with the risk of being struck with lighting, for instance, which is about 1 in 3,000, and you can see how it is easy to overstate the risks here.”

This figures aside, with the evidence we do have to link high-THC weed with mental illness and the prevalence of this type of cannabis on the streets, being divvied out by potentially unscrupulous dealers who’d think nothing of selling high potency weed to young or vulnerable people, there’s still a problem to be addressed here. The answer to which is simple, according to Reynolds.  

You only need to look to all the jurisdictions where legalisation has been done and there’s clear evidence to support that

“The answer to this is regulation – licenced & regulated growers and retailers who would enforce age limits and properly label their products and proper harm reduction information based in reality not fearmongering. It’ll create tens of thousands of jobs, pull the rug out from organised crime and reduce all harms – and you only need to look to all the jurisdictions where it’s been done and there’s clear evidence to support that.”

Even putting aside the jobs and the massive potential tax revenues (of which we are likely to need all we can get, post-Brexit) there’s a common sense harm-reduction argument to be made for legalising cannabis, one which is grounded in facts and real-life examples. We’ve seen that prohibition does nothing to deter cannabis users, and we can see from other places around the world that stricter laws do not equal lower usage rates. Conversely, there’s a good case to be made for the fact that prohibition causes more harm than it prevents.

As with all things, there are downsides to cannabis, but they can be managed and as consumers we should be able to make choices to do that. But for as long as cannabis remains an unscheduled – and therefore unregulated – substance, the people who want or even need it will be forced to put up with whatever is available, potentially risking their long-term mental health in the process, as well as criminality. With a legal and regulated system, those exact same people could head into a dispensary and choose a strain of cannabis that suits their needs and that has been manufactured with consumer safety in mind, not just profits.

Though out-of-touch politicos will likely point to this report as justification for the UK’s relatively draconian cannabis laws, or perhaps even to push for stronger laws, this report actually makes the case for, not against, legalising cannabis.

2nd March 2018