As a member of Generation Y who works in drug policy, it’s not uncommon for me to hear from Generation X about how the cannabis that is around nowadays is much stronger than what they had grown up with.
"Figures released by Volteface yesterday show the criminalisation of dealers and suppliers is mostly plummeting."
As my estate agent recently recalled to me, he was given some of his friend’s son’s joint at a party and after taking a few drags, proceeded to ‘pull a whitey’- meaning to be sweaty, sick and pale-faced with head in hands.
Generation X’s suspicions are not unfounded. High strength varieties of cannabis (‘skunk’) are increasingly dominating the market, with a recent study finding that their market share has increased from 51% in 2005 to 94% in 2017. Highly potent varieties will have high amounts of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that gets users ‘high’, and low amounts of CBD (Cannabidiol), a protective chemical that mitigates against THC’s negative effects.
- Volteface’s poll identified that one-third of 16 and 17-year-olds who had tried cannabis felt that using cannabis had made them feel worried or down.
What makes this trend concerning is the mounting evidence that the regular use of highly potent cannabis can, for some people, lead to mental health problems, with younger people being at greater risk.
"Whether young people’s involvement in supply offences should be seen as an indicator of vulnerability, rather than criminality, should be considered." - Volteface's Children's Inquiry report, September 12, 2018
Unsurprisingly, a report released yesterday by the drug policy think tank Volteface has shown that there has been a 54% increase in the number of young people in England and Wales being admitted to hospital with a cannabis-related mental health problem in the past five years. The conditions that are driving this increase include diagnoses that fall into the ‘harmful use’ category (likely to be anxiety and depression) and psychosis. What is more striking, is that the rate of increase is rising faster among young people than adults, where the cannabis-related mental health problem is the primary problem.
A key question then is, what is being done to stop young people from getting cannabis to smoke?
The sad reality is nothing much. Figures released by Volteface show the criminalisation of dealers and suppliers is mostly plummeting, and the rise of social media platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat, has made it even easier for dealers to advertise and sell cannabis to young people.
The only people who are increasingly being criminalised are young people, with prosecutions and convictions for supply increasing by 15% and 26%, respectively over the past five years.
At the very least, giving young people criminal records should be avoided as this can have a devastating impact on their life chances.
The Government has shown a willingness to regulate online spaces by introducing a social media code of practice at the end of this year, but the resources simply don’t exist to deal with the issue on the ground. And young people fundamentally still have the capacity to buy cannabis as no proof of age is required in the illicit market.
- See also: Minister for mental health has not visited a single prison over her year in power
- See also: The criminal justice system is looking at mental health again - will it use the right lens?
In Canada, the case for cannabis legalisation has explicitly been made on the grounds of protecting young people and restricting their access to cannabis. The Cannabis Act, due to come into effect next month, states that no person can sell or provide cannabis to any person under the age of 18. It creates two new criminal offences, with maximum penalties of 14 years in prison, for giving or selling cannabis to young people. Once the dust settles from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reforms and the evidence begins to emerge, our understanding of how we can best protect young people may well shift. The UK should be open to the innovations in Canada and elsewhere.
Our current cannabis policies are not working in the interests of young people. In fact, they are putting the next generation’s chances of leading fulfilling, healthy and successful lives at risk.
Liz McCulloch is Director of Policy at Volteface.