Cannabis and Jacqui Smith

The day after Gordon Brown announced that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was to head up a review of UK drugs strategy she announced that she herself was not entirely unfamiliar with recreational cannabis use, having smoked it during her studies in Oxford.

Although she has kept this to herself for the past 25 years, she has clearly ruminated on her behaviour producing this complex analysis:

‘I did break the law… I was wrong… drugs are wrong’

Ms Smith managed to come over like all politicians do when they’re telling us not to do things they’ve done themselves – wheedling and unconvincing. The Guardian’s Zoe Williams nicely punctured this hypocrisy in a recent article. Following Smith’s lead several other members of the cabinet, including the Chancellor, also admitted to have previously indulged. In 2000 eight members of the then shadow cabinet admitted similar misdemeanors.

Also in the news, The Lancet (1) publishes a study which concludes that the risk of developing psychosis is increased by 40% in smokers of cannabis, and that this is a dose-response effect leading to an increased risk of 50-200% in very heavy users.
So, we have a drug used all over the world, associated on the one hand with serious mental health disorders, on the other with counter-culturalism, creativity and plain ol’ having fun. People with multiple sclerosis testify that it eases the symptoms of their disease. It’s regularly used by thousands of people in the UK. But it’s illegal and its distribution the business of criminals.

Before I started working in mental health I used to think that legalising cannabis use was quite a good idea – I’m now officially sitting on the fence. It’s true that many people use it without perceiving any ill effects. It’s true that intoxication following smoking does not engender any of the anti-social behaviour that is a scourge on our alcohol soaked high streets at night. However our psychiatric in-patient wards are full of people who might not be there had they had no access to the drug, and many of our recurrent admissions are because our patients refuse to relinquish the habit. How would things be if cannabis were to be as readily available as cigarettes?
Having been downgraded to a class C drug in 2004 there is now talk of cannabis returning to class B, the dubious existence of stronger strains being evidence for this U-turn. I do wonder how much of this is political posturing, a government aiming to not be ‘soft on drugs’. In some places a tightening of attitudes is evident – I endured a two sniffer dog searches at this year’s Glastonbury Festival.

Whether the law on cannabis is tighten up or not people need to be able to make up their own minds and weigh up the consequences of their actions. If at the same time we could avoid criminalising large parts of the population, that would be good. Simple pronouncement of the kind favoured by the Home Secretary aren’t very helpful.

1. Theresa H Moore et al Lancet 2007; 370: 319–28

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