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Cannabis abuse prompts irrational legislating

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Comment As an example of the brain-gobbling stupidity that affects those who dabble with drugs, you really cannot beat Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's announcement that cannabis is going to be upgraded again, from a Class C drug to a Class B one. This is the sort of drivelling idiocy more normally associated with decades on peyote rather than the few spliffs she has herself admitted to.

The switch moves the maximum sentence up to five years in jail for simple possession: given the three million regular tokers (to say nothing of the larger number of occasional) this is therefore a threat of an extra seven million or so man years of jail time. Insane willy-waving that 'something is being done', you might think, when the jails are so full that police cells are being used to hold convicts.

And to what purpose? What will actually be achieved by this?

Our story starts back last year with a claim by Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley that mental health hospital admissions in England due to cannabis had risen by 85 per cent under Labour.

That's the message that flashed across the newspapers, but the bit that didn't was the next sentence of the BBC's report:

In 1996-7, there were 510 admissions, rising to 946 in 2005-6, data obtained by shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley revealed.

Yes, this is all based on the harm supposedly done to 436 people a year, out of those three million regular puffers - that is, 0.015 per cent of those partaking. You find higher incidences of nut allergy in the general population than that, a danger we deal with by displaying the notice "May Contain Nuts" on the packet.

So we start off with a bit of Toryite social paternalism; people really shouldn't enjoy themselves now, should they?

But even if we were to take the creation of an extra 436 psychotics a year as being sufficient to threaten such punishment, we've still got a slight problem here: we've not actually shown that it is the use of the drug that creates the psychosis. The specific disease being worried about is schizophrenia, and overall incidence of that has actually fallen in recent decades. As indeed has cannabis use since the downgrading:

Figures from the 2006-07 survey estimate that 20.9 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds used cannabis in the past year. However, there has been a decrease between 1998 and 2006-07 among 16 to 59-year-olds in the use of cannabis from 10.3 per cent to 8.2 per cent.

Declining use, declining number of schizophrenics... maybe they are indeed linked. But then why are there more admissions after the use of cannabis?

Well, not all that surprisingly, people who are going mad tend to take things to take away the pain and the voices. This is self-medication, and it's traditionally been tabs and booze that are taken. But if cannabis is either easier to obtain or less dangerous to do so (which the downgrading probably did cause) then more of those losing their minds will self-medicate with dope than the other two. So we don't even have causation here, the evil weed causing reefer madness; we have correlation, to be sure, but the causation seems to run the other way.

It's really not looking like a very sensible decision now, is it? Since the downgrading we've had no increase in people going nuts, a decrease in the number smoking and a lower burden on the prison system - all things to be desired, one would have thought.

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