A landmark study published this week – which found that cannabis users who smoke stronger strains of the drug on a daily basis are five times more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis – has worrying implications for public health.
At least 7.4% of adults use cannabis and recent research has shown that 94% of the cannabis available on the streets today is skunk – high in THC, the chemical that gets users high, but very low in CBD, the drug’s mitigating chemical. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Other research suggests that high- potency cannabis can be linked to users becoming dependent on it, anxiety and depression – particularly if it is used at an early age.
The study by King’s College London makes the case that, if high-potency cannabis was no longer available, the number of cases of those diagnosed with psychosis would drop.
However, while cannabis stays put in the hands of criminal gangs, there is absolutely nothing we can do to control how strong the cannabis sold on the UK’s streets is. At present, there are no regulatory powers that the Government can draw on.
Legalising and regulating the sale and possession of cannabis in the UK would enable us to take control of the market and introduce regulations that would better protect public health. We could regulate the potency of cannabis much like we do with alcohol, by introducing graduated taxation, minimum unit pricing and potency caps, to encourage the sale and consumption of lower strength products. We could ensure that the very basics are covered, by requiring licensed retailers to display accurate product information and banning them from selling cannabis to children.
And all the revenue from cannabis sales that is currently going into criminal gangs could instead be taxed and put into drugs education, public health information and drug treatment. Meanwhile, decriminalising the use of cannabis would help engage people into support by removing the associated stigma.
Across the globe, countries and states are reforming their cannabis laws. Canada, which became the first G7 country to legalise recreational cannabis last October, has done so on the basis that children must be protected from becoming entrapped in a dangerous black market.
It is a telling sign that, here in the UK, the Royal College of Physiatrists is to review its opposition to the legalisation of cannabis, in light of arguments that such a change could improve public health.
The rising potency of cannabis demonstrates an urgent need to regulate our illegal cannabis market. Leaving it in the hands of criminals is no longer an option.
Lizzie McCulloch is policy director at Volteface.