'Cannabis use down since legal change', the Guardian reports today on its front page. And its true, at least if you believe the British Crime Survey. The report also knocks holes in a number of other recently hyped skunk-cannabis panics perpetuated by various tabloids and the Independent on Sunday (with its road-back-from-Damascus re-conversion to the wisdom of mass criminlisation of young people as the sensible policy response).
The Guardian report, in a welcome break from much of the reefer madness of the last year, highlights the fact that trends in reported cannabis use amongst 16-24 year olds (including frequent users), and 16 to 59 year olds, have declined steadily in recent years.
Of course, the BCS is not without its methodological flaws; it is generally acknowledged to under-estimate total use because it is a household survey and consequently misses out on certain groups – students, and those with no fixed address - with generally higher levels of use. That said, it is at least consistent in its methodology so there is no reason to think the general trends it describes are not for real.
There are, however, a couple of further observations that today's broadsheet coverage miss out on. Firstly, overall prevalence of use is not an especially useful measure of overall harm related to use. If patterns of more intense or risky use are increasing it is quite possible that falling use could be associated with increasing harm. Similarly rising prevalence could potentially be associated with decreasing harm in the opposite scenario – you just don't know without some more detailed research on using behaviours. Some research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (also published this week) shows how heavy use can cause real problems, but also highlights the links between such patterns of problem use and social deprivation.
Secondly, the fact remains that the BCS prevalence data shows the downward trend in reported cannabis use predates the reclassification from B to C in 2004, in fact beginning around 2001/2. This rather undermines the suggestion of the Guardian headline that the reclassification might in some way be a factor in falling use, just as many others have suggested it is a factor in rising use (see this blog post from January about a Daily Mail story that reported how 'the "softly softly" approach is contributing to a huge rise in cannabis use.' )
Both of these observations point to a more important analysis: that classification of cannabis appears irrelevant to either overall levels of use, or levels of problematic use. As Transform has long argued patterns of use are determined predominantly by a complex interplay of social, economic and cultural variables, there is no evidence to suggest changing classification has a meaningful impact on deterrence, and enforcement and drug policy more generally can -at best- only have a marginal impact on levels of use. There may well be an increase in problematic cannabis use occurring, but it remains hard to quantify and whatever its true scale the appropriate response should be always be public health led rather than based on an criminalisation /enforcement approach already tried for three decades with demonstrably disastrous outcomes. If, as the research suggests, the key determinants of problematic drug use are related to social deprivation then any long term response must focus on addressing these underlying social causes.
Classification seems to have become a symbolic talisman in the ongoing culture wars, dominating political discourse over the past five years in a fashion that grossly overstates its relevance in practical terms. Should cannabis be B or C has somehow, ridiculously, come to represent an ideological position, namely whether someone is 'pro' or 'anti' drugs. Support C and you are part of a sinister Soros-funded conspiracy to legalise drugs and make crack available in school tuck shops, support B and you are a tireless warrior in the crusade to create a drug free world. Meanwhile in the real world classification remains almost entirely irrelevant to young people, dealers, and indeed the police, who still have the flexibility to enforce the laws regards cannabis as they see fit.
In the original posting of this blog I claimed that:
In more than twenty cannabis panic features in the IOS since March the BCS figures have never been mentioned.
This claim is incorrect, as I have subsequently spotted that in this article from July 29th 07: The great cannabis debate: 50 top experts confirm mental health risk it is noted that:
The number of 16- to 24-year-olds who smoked cannabis in 2006 has fallen by a quarter since 1998 – the last time the Government published its drug strategy. And among 11- to 15-year-olds cannabis use is also down: 10 per cent of pupils had smoked cannabis last year, down from 13 per cent in 2003, 2002 and 2001.
So even though the figures aren't sourced (the first being from the BCS and the second from the DoH schools survey - both not without flaws), I retract the specific claim, with apologies to the Independent on Sunday.
That said, I don't retract or apologise for Transform blog critiques of all the other skewed, misleading and sensationalist reporting of this issue since March, or the shortsighted editorial analysis and comment that has accompanied it.