Reefer madness returns?

Let me make something very clear, I do not think RETHINK, the mental health charity, are some kind of prohibition front organisation. I do believe they are well meaning and motivated by the best of intentions. But I have to say I do think they are quite inept at what they do.

It was RETHINK that launched the whole reefer madness V2 campaign back in 2004 which was hijacked by prohibition campaigns and other slightly loopy mental health campaigners such as Marjory Wallace of the mental health charity “SANE” who came out with this sort of rubbish (one of my favourite reefer madness quotes which I have mentioned before)

The original RETHINK campaign not only opened the door to the prohibition lobby to oppose cannabis law reform, but it was spectacularly unsuccessful in its aim of protecting young people who might be at risk. Because of RETHINK cannabis was rescheduled back to B, which the charity had specifically said it didn’t want.

When RETHINK launched their campaign back in 2004 I approached them on behalf of UKCIA to offer the services of this website to communicate their concerns to cannabis users. They rejected my offer on the grounds that they couldn’t be associated with a cannabis law reform campaign, although they did allow me to use some of their information which is still online here. Quite why wasn’t clear, especially as they were quite happy to share platforms with the National Drug Prevention Alliance, a prohibition campaign.

Anyway, RETHINK are back. Last week Mark Davies from RETHINK went on Radio 5live’s breakfast programme to talk about a survey they’ve carried out which shows a third of young people think cannabis use is normal. The survey in question seems to be “Educating Reefer” (a not very good pun on “Educating Rita”), a report they commissioned for the ACMD review into cannabis classification in 2008.

Actually, the idea that cannabis use is regarded as normal shouldn’t come as a surprise because cannabis use is normal, it’s very widespread and embedded in our culture as most of us who aren’t politicians realise. What is true is that because cannabis is prohibited and the whole culture driven underground as a result this widespread use is hidden and there is nothing to protect young kids from an unregulated and uncontrolled trade that reaches into every city, town and village in the country.

The discussion on Radio 5live was pretty good and involved peter Reynolds form CLEAR

However, later in the programme they allowed Terry Hammond to spout some fairly typical reefer madness claims without challenge. Terry is the father of a young man who used cannabis and developed severe mental illness, in his dads mind as a result of his cannabis use. Terry was very prominent in the original RETHINK campaign and the fact that he was on the same programme as Mark Davies strongly suggests a link between the two. Most of what Terry says is fair enough until near the end of the interview when he makes some outlandish claims

Terry claims that cannabis causes actual physical brain damage, this of course is untrue. He is clearly convinced of his belief about cannabis, but it has to be remembered that schizophrenia has always happened in the way he described without cannabis being involved and it’s always happened to young people – mostly young men – of the same age as his son. It is a nasty illness, but it has always been a nasty illness. Terry seems to believe it wouldn’t have happened if his son hadn’t taken cannabis, we can never know of course, but it could well have done, indeed it can be argued that it probably would have done.

Media interest in RETHINK’s latest effort was pretty low, perhaps it’s just not news any more. In any case the science has moved on a lot since 2004 and hasn’t been that supportive of many of their claims. As we know there is not much evidence – if any at all – of a rise in the rates of psychosis over the time cannabis use has exploded. Let’s be clear about this, if cannabis did cause serious mental illness we would know about it by now for sure. Also as this blog reported recently the idea of a genetic susceptibility (the COMT gene) has recently been undermined by a study carried out at Bristol by Stan Zammit, which was a major plank of the original RETHINK campaign.

Mark Davies did make it into the Huffpo and came out with this tired old chestnut:

One of the problems is that the cannabis many parents remember from their youth is a completely different substance to the one around today

Although he link he gave to illustrate that claim actually stated

The unpublished results of authoritative research into cannabis confirm the “skunk” now on sale in England is stronger than it was a decade ago, but demolish claims that a new “super-strength skunk” – which is 20 times more powerful – is dominating the market.

Two studies due to be published later this year, which together analysed nearly 550 samples of skunk seized by the police, both conclude that the average content of the main psychoactive agent in skunk strains of cannabis, THC, has doubled from 7% in 1995 to 14% in 2005.

Today’s cannabis is not “totally different” to cannabis of days gone by, that is the sort of claim that earns the “reefer madness” tag. He goes on to say

It’s certainly true that smoking cannabis is far from rare. What is alarming however, is the view that doing so is pretty much harmless and that it’s inevitable that most teenagers will dabble with it. The argument goes that it’s part of growing up, it’s not a big deal – even President Obama ‘inhaled frequently’ in his younger days.

Mark seems to understand the situation; we have a very normal activity going on which people to a large extent regard as normal and are quite familiar with. What he doesn’t seem to understand is what needs to be done

The critical issue is around education. The view that smoking cannabis is nothing to get worked up about needs to be challenged more effectively. Instead of classifying and re-classifying, government time and money would be much better spent on educating young people who smoke cannabis about the very real game of Russian roulette they’re playing with their mental health.

This just isn’t real world. In Marks Huffpo article he points to a study which claims to show that young people who use cannabis before age 15 are at an increased risk of developing mental illness. The study concludes with a comment

Policy makers and law makers should concentrate on delaying onset of cannabis use.

That, really, is the only way forward. We need a legal regime for cannabis which actually protects kids from the cannabis trade and the only way to do that is to properly control the trade and impose age limits for sales, just like we do with booze and fags – and for much the same reason. The idea that kids can be persuaded by teachers not to touch cannabis when it’s in their faces to the extent that it is these days is naive in the extreme.

RETHINK need to think very carefully about their cannabis campaign. If they really do believe children are at a risk because of the present situation regarding cannabis use then they need to be willing to campaign for a fundamental change in the way we do things. It’s not as if they are unaware of this, in their “Educating Reefer” report they state

Illegality and drug classification does not motivate people to stop cannabis use. Only 3% gave illegality as a reason for quitting cannabis use.

So they know the present regime doesn’t work. Not facing up to that reality is delusional, nothing less. It must be blindingly obvious to them that if they want to see a real change they have to get involved in the cannabis law reform debate.  The offer from UKCIA is still on the table: This website will work with them to help get the message across that cannabis is not for kids, as long as they are willing to ask for something sensible and not to run a campaign which is used to undermine the case for law reform as they did last time. A similar offer could be on the table from CLEAR. We should talk.






UKCIA is a cannabis law reform site dedicated to ending the prohibition of cannabis. As an illegal drug, cannabis is not a controlled substance - it varies greatly in strength and purity, it's sold by unaccountable people from unknown venues with no over sight by the authorities. There is no recourse to the law for users and the most vulnerable are therefore placed at the greatest risk. There can be no measures such as age limits on sales and no way to properly monitor or study the trade, let alone introduce proper regulation. Cannabis must be legalised, as an illegal substance it is very dangerous to the users and society at large.

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