360° Analysis

It’s Not Harmless: A Case for Legalizing Cannabis

Legalizing cannabis

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June 14, 2014 12:14 EDT

The campaign against legalizing cannabis in Britain is based on misleading and deceiving the public.

More than 30% of everyone who lives in the UK will use cannabis in their lifetime. About 5% of the population uses cannabis regularly. That’s 3 million people using cannabis at least once per month, three times as many people as regularly attend the Catholic Church.

We cannot stop the demand for cannabis and it is naïve to think that we can. It is deeply ingrained in our culture and it is not something new. From earliest times, through the Middle Ages and right up to the early 20th century, cannabis was one of the most widely cultivated agricultural crops.

Yet millions of us have been denied access to a medicine that for many conditions is safer, more effective, less toxic and less debilitating than pharmaceutical products. We have wasted billions on futile law enforcement efforts, which have achieved nothing except to create a £6 billion criminal market and we have abandoned our children and our communities to street dealers, dangerous, hidden cannabis farms and the evil of human trafficking.

Cannabis in History

Before the 1960s, cannabis was better known as hemp, and was grown mainly for its fiber for use in making rope and textiles. There are hundreds of towns and villages all over Britain that incorporate the word hemp into their name.

We still grow industrial hemp today and now it is defined as having less than 0.2% THC (the principal psychoactive ingredient), but in the past there was no such control and flowering hemp plants have been used in traditional medicines for thousands of years. In fact, if you go back just 100 years, more than half of all medicines in the British pharmacopeia contained cannabis. Famously, Queen Victoria’s doctor, Sir Russell Reynolds (no relation), prescribed her cannabis for menstrual pain and arthritis.

Archaeological excavation has unearthed clay pipes containing the residue of psychoactive cannabis in the garden of William Shakespeare’s home. Potentially even more uncomfortable for those who try to demonize the plant, several biblical scholars now argue that cannabis may have been a key ingredient in the anointing oils that Christ and his disciples used for healing.

About 9% of users develop a mild dependency but, coincidentally, this is the same proportion of coffee drinkers who rely on their “fix” of caffeine.

Cannabis was first banned in Britain in 1928, although cannabis tincture was still available in pharmacies until 1971. This 86-year experiment has been a disaster. We are now spending £500 million each year on law enforcement for cannabis alone and yet the UK has one of the highest rates of use in Europe and one of the lowest ages at first use. By contrast, in the Netherlands, where adults can purchase up to five grams and grow up to five plants, overall use is lower and age at first use is higher. This is the disaster that is UK policy.

Cannabis is Not Harmless

Are we so stupid in Britain that we cannot learn the lessons of history? If we prohibit something for which there is huge demand then the price rises and violent criminals become involved. This is what happened with alcohol prohibition in the US and exactly the same thing is now happening with cannabis.

Cannabis is not harmless, but it is probably the safest psychoactive and therapeutic substance known to science. The most dangerous thing about cannabis is smoking it with tobacco, so that is the first and most important thing to avoid.

Children should not use cannabis. While the brain is growing and developing it has a property called “plasticity,” which means the way it develops can be altered by any substance use or life experience. This danger reduces once you enter your early twenties. Until then it is better to avoid anything, even strong coffee, that can affect the brain.

Cannabis is also an intoxicant, so using it too much is never going to be good and could lead to a downward spiral of demotivation and dependency. About 9% of users develop a mild dependency but, coincidentally, this is the same proportion of coffee drinkers who rely on their “fix” of caffeine.

Minimizing Risks

It is children that are the only group at any significant risk of harm from cannabis. Even then, the risk is very small and far less than the risks associated with all prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and of underage drinking or smoking tobacco. However, we should do all that we can to keep cannabis out of the hands of children.

At present, it is easier for children to get hold of than alcohol or tobacco because the only ID a dealer asks for is a £20 note. We should legalize cannabis, and regulate and tax its use to make Britain a safer, healthier place for everyone. That wouldn’t eliminate underage use but it would minimize it. Cannabis should be sold through licensed outlets to adults only with harm reduction information, quality control and proper labeling of contents.

Another issue is that illegal cannabis farms are hidden away in lofts and rented property. Dangerous electrical installations enable electricity to be stolen but are increasingly the cause of fires. Human trafficking, often of Vietnamese children, means they are locked in and forced to tend plants, abused and subject to violence.

It is UK government policy that is responsible for this, just as US government policy on cannabis has led to the death of 60,000 people in Mexico in the last five years.

Dangerous Drugs

So what keeps this stupid, irrational and self-defeating policy in place?

The ban was first imposed at the behest of Egyptian cotton farmers whose business was threatened by hemp. They lobbied the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations) with the same scare stories about mental illness as we regularly see in the 21st century in The Daily Mail. Without debate or evidence, cannabis was added to a list of “dangerous” drugs, which was incorporated into the Dangerous Drugs Act 1925 that came into force in 1928.

Today, it is the alcohol industry that jealously guards its monopoly of legal recreational drugs. It is terrified of a safer, healthier alternative to its poisonous products and it has government and regulators in its pocket. Just look how David Cameron promised minimum unit pricing as an effort to combat our record levels of liver disease, but when it came close, ministers blatantly suppressed the evidence in its favor.

Meanwhile, “big booze” has seen regulatory control melt away. There are more alcohol outlets than ever before. Products have become stronger, formulated to appeal to children and the consequent health harms have become the most significant public health issue in our country with 1.25 million annual hospital admissions caused by alcohol.

Legalizing cannabis

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Professor David Nutt says that if cannabis was legally available to adults, he believes alcohol consumption could fall by up to 25%. This would transform public health in Britain and save the National Health Service (NHS) billions.

The truth is that the impact of cannabis on mental health and all aspects of our health services is infinitesimally small. That’s not to say it is harmless, but peanut allergy causes more health harms. The facts of hospital admissions and the numbers in treatment show that cannabis is a trivial cause of problems and irrelevant in public health terms.

Last year, just 1,003 people were admitted to hospital for “mental and behavioral problems relating to cannabinoids” and a substantial proportion of these were for synthetic cannabinoids, “legal highs” such as “spice,” proven to be far more harmful than real cannabis.

Spice is one of many products that are sold as synthetic cannabis. Sometimes called a “legal high,” it often contains substances that have been banned. It is a herbal mixture that looks a little like cannabis and has been sprayed with one or more chemicals known as Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists (SCRAs). These are highly toxic, dangerous substances associated with a range of extremely serious, potentially fatal, medical conditions.

Synthetic cannabinoids are intended to mimic the effects of THC but they can be 50 or even 100 times more potent. They also bind more tightly to the CB1 receptor meaning the effect can be more intense and longer lasting. They are nothing like real cannabis. They do not have the balancing effect of CBD and other cannabinoids. There is no “entourage effect” from over 400 compounds in the plant, now known to be the engine of the therapeutic and pleasant effects of real cannabis.

Professor Les Iversen, the government’s own chief drugs advisor, says:

“Cannabis is a safer drug than aspirin and can be used long-term without serious side effects. It is never possible for a scientist to say that anything is totally safe. But, at the end of the day, scaremongering does science – and the public – a great disservice. Cannabis is simply not as dangerous as it is being made out to be.”

In May, Iversen said that cannabis is no longer an issue for the Advisory Council because it has become politicized and governments simply ignore scientific evidence.

Good for You

Many scientists now claim that for most adults, in moderation, cannabis is actually good for you. It is a natural supplement to our endocannabinoid system and helps to protect against autoimmune conditions such as diabetes and Crohn’s Disease. It also has powerful antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. It is neuroprotective and promotes neurogenesis, which is why it is useful for the treatment of brain injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In fact, the US government holds a patent for the use of cannabinoids in the treatment of such conditions.

If we introduced a legally regulated system, we would solve nearly all the problems around cannabis. We would have no more illegal and dangerous cannabis farms destroying property and causing fires. Instead, we would have thousands of new jobs. We would have no more dealers on the streets. Cannabis would be available to adults only through licensed outlets and we would have some control over the THC and CBD content.

Colorado, having legalized cannabis from the beginning of this year, has already collected over $4 million in new tax revenue in the first two months. This money is being ring fenced for schools and hospitals. Similar legal regulation is also being implemented in Washington, and Uruguay has taken the whole cannabis market under government control in order to undermine organized crime.

More than half the US population now has access to legal medicinal cannabis, all of Canada, all of Israel and every country in Europe with the exception of Ireland, France and the UK.

The rest of the word is leaving Britain behind and taking advantage of the huge health and financial benefits of legalizing cannabis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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