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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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HomeCulture WarBravo, Braverman, for facing the drugs problem

Bravo, Braverman, for facing the drugs problem

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SUELLA Braverman is making waves – for the right reasons. For the first time in decades we may have a Home Secretary who has the courage to tackle the drugs problem instead of waving a white flag. Ms Braverman, if reports are to be believed, is actively considering moving cannabis from Class B to Class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

This is not a trivial case of alphabetti-spaghetti. Making cannabis a Class A drug would send a powerful message that we are taking this drug seriously. For decades cannabis policy in the UK has been shaped by a concoction of mistaken beliefs, political lobbying and financial modelling.

The mistaken beliefs include that cannabis is a harmless drug. Recent research showing that cannabis use in pregnancy significantly increases the risk of birth defects (for example here) may change the perception that cannabis is a harmless recreational drug. We have got used to the idea that some of those using cannabis may experience psychological harms, but the idea that neonates may be harmed by parental cannabis use could be a turning point in terms of how we see the world’s most widely used illegal drug. 

The second erroneous belief is that legalising cannabis would result in no appreciable increase in its use because all of those who want to use the drug are already doing so. In fact the vast majority of people do not know how to access cannabis, or any other illegal drug for that matter. Legalising cannabis, thereby increasing the availability of the drug through whatever outlets supply it, will inevitably increase levels of cannabis use. The reason for this is the simple fact that availability is one of the strongest predictors of actual drug use. We know this from the alcohol industry with studies showing that alcohol consumption is at its highest in those areas with the greatest number of sales outlets. It is often also said that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and on that basis alone it should be legalised. This is an argument premised on the mistaken belief that alcohol and tobacco offer a template for how other drugs should be regulated. The reality, however, is that legal availability of these substances has been a public health disaster with alcohol- and smoking-related morbidity and mortality eclipsing illegal drugs. Given the far greater numbers of tobacco and alcohol consumers, legalised drug consumption at these levels of use would see a collapse of society as we know it.

Suella Braverman is alarmed at the possibility that using cannabis increases the likelihood of using other illegal drugs. The so-called gateway theory of cannabis has been around for decades and is hated by those who want to see the drug legalised. Cannabis is a gateway drug in the sense that those selling it are often selling other substances, and it is as obvious as night following day that any cannabis seller stands to make more money by offering access to a wider range of substances than concentrating on cannabis alone.

Drug use, we are often told, is a matter of human rights, with the accompanying question being to ask who are we to legislate for what other people put into their bodies. But characterising cannabis and other drug use as a matter for the individual alone is a gross oversimplification of what happens when people use drugs. If I am about to have a consultation with a doctor, argue my case in court, speak to my child’s teacher, seek employment in my desired industry, or board a transatlantic flight I don’t want the person I am engaging with to be experiencing the effects of recent drug use (including cannabis). Drug use impacts all those around the user, not simply the individual.

The financial side of things is the counsel that if only we legalised cannabis the exchequer would benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds – we would all be so much better off if only cannabis and other drugs could be legally purchased. The proponents of this view often add that some of the extra could go to fund our Health Services to meet the needs of those sad souls who get into difficulty as a result of their drug use. In the event of there being any increase in the use in cannabis following legalisation our health services may well need that extra money to provide life-long psychological support for those in need.  

Finally, of course, we have our police, many of whom are all too ready to push the drugs problem into the hands of the health services. It’s a health issue, they tell us, and anyway you cannot arrest yourself out of a drug problem. The latter is of course a straw man since nobody for one minute is suggesting that tougher enforcement is the single answer. But the inclination of the police to walk away from the drugs problem is nothing short of a dereliction on the part of our enforcement agencies of the duty to serve and protect our society. Drug abuse poses a threat to our society as great, if not greater, than political and religious extremism. Our police need to be doing all they can to reduce the availability of illegal drugs and to identify all those involved in this toxic trade. 

Suella Braverman does not seem inclined to listen to those whose counsel is to liberalise our drug laws. She may be determined to reduce the prevalence of drug abuse in our society and to protect our society from the threat that drug abuse poses to us all. At long last.  

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Neil McKeganey
Neil McKeganey
Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow and former Government drug policy advisor.

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