The following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) last week. In addition to the print copy, it can be found on the CYPNow website here.
Cannabis row leaves us all in a blur
Back at the end of October, Professor David Nutt, chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), was sacked after criticising policy on cannabis classification.
While there have been many different explanations for his dismissal, the sacking came immediately after Nutt published a paper in which he claimed that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. In February he published a report that stated that taking ecstasy was no more dangerous than riding a horse.
Personally, I’ve been interested in the lively debate surrounding these comments as they have a direct relevance to my work with young people and how they perceive drug taking.
When I first heard the news on the radio and they quoted Nutt saying that cannabis was not as harmful as tobacco, my immediate reaction was that it was a stupid thing to say. My main concern was that it made drug use acceptable by dismissing the risks involved.
There is already a great deal of confusion among many young people over the legal status of cannabis. Much of this has to do with the reclassification of the drug over the past five years.
Cannabis has been illegal in the UK since 1928, but was classified as a Class B drug in the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. In 2004, the government reclassified the drug as the lesser Class C, which also carried lighter penalties for those found with it in their possession. This was based on the recommendation of the ACMD.
Then earlier this year, it was reverted back to a Class B again against the advice of the ACMD, partly due to research suggesting cannabis use can be linked to mental health issues. Professor Nutt’s comments regarding the relative low harm of the drug only serve to deepen that confusion by sending a mixed message.
However, as is usually the case, that is not exactly what was said. In fact, in the disputed publication Professor Nutt makes clear that cannabis is “a harmful drug” and argues for a “concerted public health response to drastically reduce its use”. His point was to show that the UK has a much bigger problem with alcohol and tobacco than with weed. Apparently, alcohol ranks as the fifth most harmful drug after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and methadone. Tobacco ranks at number nine, while cannabis is at number 11.
Put into this context, I think he’s got a good point. Many of us know and work with young people who use cannabis. However, I’d wager that nearly all readers of this magazine have contact with young people who use alcohol in a risky way.
While Nutt may have made some controversial headlines before his departure from the ACMD, we’re left with the reality that when it comes to the risks involved in different kinds of drug use, he is probably right.
You can view all my Youth Work Now articles here.