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Classifying ‘strong’ cannabis as a ‘hard drug’ in The Netherlands marks the end of an era. It should ring alarm bells here.

    Last Friday the Dutch government committed to classifying high-potency marijuana - cannabis with 15%+ THC - to the Dutch ‘List 1’ of ‘hard drugs’ joining drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. This is the latest step in the country's ongoing reversal of its famed ‘tolerance’ policy - the beginning of the end of its liberal experiment with drugs. For the supposedly hard drug/soft drug distinction has seen increasing numbers of damaged teenagers in need of rehabilitation and treatment.

    Their decision - to ban the possession and sale of strong cannabis with more than 15% of the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol - follows the recommendations of the Garretsen Committee. It will have profound implications for coffee shop activity and sales. This is because the average THC-content of all the cannabis currently sold in the Netherlands already falls above this limit. Nearly three-quarters of sales has a 15 to 18 percent THC content. It follows the dramatic drop in the number of coffee shops since the late nineties - many municipal areas decided to ban them altogether or to crack down on any abuse of the law regarding their terms of operation. Growers of all cannabis are routinely prosecuted if caught.

    The Garretsen Committee found (unlike the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ two cannabis reviews) that the risks of addiction and psychotic disorders resulting from high THC-content were simply too high to leave things as they were; that strong cannabis poses a serious public mental health issue.

    Given the Dutch approach to custodial sentencing for hard drugs (which make our sentencing practices look positively lenient) it is not surprising that the Dutch Cannabis Companies are now in a right old tizzy. The new policy is ‘indecent,’ they claim. But the only political party backing them seems to be the SP (Socialist Party). The Democrats 66 Party wants greater regulation of cannabis cultivation to stop producers from producing the stronger product. But both Christian Democrats and the right wing PVV have given their full support to the move.

    The Garretsen recommendations should ring alarm bells here. For as long ago as 2005 the average THC content of confiscated cannabis had reached 14% in Britain.

    Yet our own advisory body, the ACMD, historically, has been frighteningly sanguine about the risks of cannabis. Its ex-chairman, Professor Nutt, bizarrely continues to ‘legitimise’ adolescent drug use arguing that alcohol and tobacco cause more harm, while advocating cannabis reclassification (downwards) and ‘control’ through coffee shop sales, on his media, school and pub circuits. This downplays the established ‘scientific’ facts that:

    • cannabis use increases the risk of psychotic outcomes
    • these outcomes are independent of any confounding and transient intoxication effects
    • early onset of use and frequency of use increases the risk further
    • the risk/effect is much stronger for those with a (genetic) predisposition for psychosis – a predisposition that parents do not learn about until it is too late.

    The Home Office’s Cannabis Potency Study (conducted in late 2007/early 2008) confirmed that “skunk” dominates the UK cannabis market - with 80 per cent of street seized cannabis having a potency of around 16%. It remarked “This is a significant increase from the available evidence in 1995 which showed average potency levels of 6%.” (See here.) It went on, “The clear conclusion is that these increases have been fuelled by the massive growth in the commercial cultivation of cannabis in the United Kingdom in recent years.”

    However it seems to have been quite happy to leave it ACPO to deal with the problem. With their misnamed ‘national coordinator for cannabis cultivation’ it is not clear that they have an adequate strategy in place, the resources or the proper political backing. For James Brokenshire’s recent parliamentary reply to Alok Sharma MP on the subject singularly failed to inspire confidence. He reported that the number of cannabis farms in the country is not held centrally. He did however note that the 172 cannabis farms in the Thames Valley Police Area represented eight farms per 100,000 members of the population. No need to worry about London’s supply then.

    I have argued before that cannabis, the most used illicit drug by adults and young people in particular, is a public health time bomb. We simply do not know how much of violent gang behaviour is driven by undetected and undiagnosed psychosis. We do know however that it is a gateway drug, that the cognitive and schooling implications are disastrous and that its use does nothing but make other adolescent problems more intractable.

    If ‘defending our brains’ was the primary public health issue in drugs policy, as Bertha Madras, Professor of Psychobiology at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry advocates, then the UK’s ACMD would be seriously considering following the Dutch move and rescheduling ‘strong’ cannabis as a Class A drug in the UK and demanding robust prevention and intervention measures.

    Today I will be attending a ‘crisis’ driven conference on adolescent substance misuse convened by the dedicated Professor K.A.H. Mirza, of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Kings College in London. He is desperately worried about the crisis that faces us. “Young people need more than drug education” he says, “They need a new definition of what constitutes ‘substance misuse’. We can prevent a lot of young people from developing a long term career in addiction if we intervene early. It is a vitally important issue that we need to bring out in to the public domain.”

    I agree and I propose to give him all the help I can.

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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