Nothing Soft about Drugs


Universe Column for June 29th 2003

By David Alton

Most of us have first-hand experience of the consequences of drug taking.  A few months ago I attended the funeral of a young man whose promising life had been blighted and ended by the curse of drugs. Not long before I had been particularly struck by the story of a 10 year-old girl from Ellel in Lancashire died after taking Ecstasy.

For many young people the road to hard drugs begins with the illusion that some drugs have little or no effect and are safe to use. The illusion usually begins with cannabis and ends with heroin.

The American Academy of Paediatrics says that weekly users of cannabis are 60 times more likely to progress to harder drugs and that almost 100 per cent of heroin addicts started on cannabis. And a new British report, Hidden Harm,  estimates that some 300,000 children are now being damaged by their parents’ drug habit. The social, personal and economic costs are colossal.

The present approach of  “harm reduction” is clearly not working and by going soft on drug use we are sending out contradictory and confusing messages. Muddled and confused messages are putting children’s lives at risk.

According to a survey by Life Education Centres, 86 per cent of primary school children believe that, following reclassification, cannabis is now legal; 79 per cent believe it is safe.  The fact is that cannabis today is, on average, 10 times stronger than in the 1960s. The psychoactive ingredient of cannabis has increased from 0.5 per cent to over 5 per cent and brain cells are never clear of cannabis. The British Medical Journal suggests that cannabis increases the risk of developing mental illness, including schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, suicidal behaviour and anxiety. The risk of suicidal disorder is almost tripled. The same research suggests that young male users are five times more likely to be violent. Smoking it during pregnancy also harms unborn children.

Professor Griffith Edwards of the National Addiction Centre says:

“There is enough evidence now to make one seriously worried about the possibility of cannabis producing long-term impairment of brain function”.

There are 50 per cent more carcinogens in cannabis than in tobacco smoke. Lung, head and neck cancers have been observed in young cannabis users – cancers that usually occur in cigarette smokers in their 60s. Last month, Professor John Henry and other doctors from Imperial College in St Mary’s Hospital said cannabis could be a major contributor to United Kingdom deaths, possibly killing more than 30,000 smokers each year.

Philip Emafo, President of the United Nations International Narcotics Board says

“Cannabis is not a harmless drug as advocates of its legalisation tend to portray.”

The temptation has been to accommodate the drug in the hope that it might regulate drug misuse generally. Over the past 25 years, Sweden and Holland have followed diametrically opposed approaches. The UN Office for Drug Control noted that in Holland, acceptance of cannabis has seen,

“hard drug use doubled. The strongest growth was observed for ecstasy”.

Holland’s approach of harm reduction has led to usage rising from 15 per cent to 44 per cent among 18 to 20 year-olds.

By contrast, Sweden’s drugs policy is based on the goal of creating a drug-free society. Drug prevention, education and the criminal justice system all work together to limit any use of illegal drugs. In Sweden, this radical approach has led to a much lower use of drugs of all kinds than in Holland. The overall lifetime prevalence of drug abuse among 15 to 16 year-olds is about 29 per cent in Holland and just 8 per cent in Sweden.

Since the Lambeth experiment and reclassification, there have been reports of children as young as 10 getting stoned before going to school. The use of cannabis among teenage boys has risen from 19 per cent to 29 per cent—a staggering jump of 50 per cent. Some 79 per cent of teachers say that reclassification has made drug prevention more difficult.

Nor does it help when one charity – funded by lottery grants—offers advice to young people about how to conceal drug taking from their parents and telling them how to inject heroin. The logo reads:

“Better hits, healthier veins, healthier body”.

Deirdre Boyd, chief executive and editor of Addiction Today says:

“Current drug education is at best worthless and at worse probably exacerbates drug use. Drug prevention work hardly exists”.

Public policy has sent out a worrying array of contradictory and confusing messages. There is nothing soft about drugs. They have harsh and often lethal consequences. Harm reduction does not work; working for prevention and a drugs free society does.