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06/01/2008 00:00:00

UK: Reclassifying cannabis would make no difference to young

Experts say that the vast majority of teenagers get the drug from their
friends, writes Jonathan Owen

Reclassifying cannabis would be pointless and therefore unlikely to make
any difference to young users of the drug, according to a new report by
some of the country's top criminal policy experts.

Cannabis has now become such an important part of youth culture that a
new generation of users are supplying each other with the drug, buying
and sharing it with friends and relatives. A team of researchers from
the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) led by Professor Mike
Hough, a senior adviser to the Home Office, has concluded that the
"social supply" of cannabis has almost entirely cut out traditional drug
dealers and therefore needs a new approach. Their findings reveal that
90 per cent of young users can get hold of cannabis in under a day –
with the majority able to get it within an hour.

Almost two-thirds use cannabis at least once a week, spending an average
of £80 a month on the drug. On average, they start taking the drug when
just 13 years old, and almost all are introduced to it by friends or
relatives – with just 1 per cent by dealers. Almost half (45 per cent)
admit to having helped supply cannabis to others; 43 per cent have taken
it at school or college. More than half (54 per cent) say they use
cannabis to relax.

More than 180 cannabis users between 11 and 19 were interviewed by
researchers, whose findings will be published by the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation later this month.

These findings come at a critical point in the debate over how to tackle
Britain's cannabis crisis and will be a blow to medical experts and
senior police officers who have been leading calls for the drug to be
reclassified. As part of a government review of drug strategy, the
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is currently considering whether
cannabis should revert to being a class B drug – three years after it
was controversially downgraded to a class C drug by the then Home
Secretary, David Blunkett – and is due to make its recommendation to the
Home Office in the spring.

Despite cannabis being Britain's most widely used illegal drug, the
report is one of the first to have looked at how young people get hold
of it, and highlights the lack of knowledge that surrounds the drug,
despite the fact that more than 2.5 million 16- to 24-year-olds have
used it.

"If we are to do anything about cannabis use and the dangers attached to
it, then we have to understand it better. Children are buying it in
groups, often from friends and also older brothers and sisters," says
Charlie Lloyd, principal research manager at the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation. "Many of the young people have supplied the drug to their
friends, not in a drug-dealing sense but more in a not-for-profit way –
almost like an informal cooperative between friends."

Researchers found that almost all young cannabis users are introduced to
the drug by friends, with only 6 per cent saying that they buy from
unknown sellers. Professor Hough, who is director of the ICPR, says:
"While the public stereotype of the drug dealer may be of an adult
stranger 'pushing' drugs to young people, in the case of cannabis this
is very rarely the case.

"Most young people get their cannabis from other young people – often
without a profit being made. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the law such
transactions represent drug supply offences."

An anonymous account in the report by one young user reveals how
networks of friends have edged out dealers: "They [the people who sell
cannabis] are friends from school and also from outside of school. We
socialise together."

Sharing cannabis is commonplace for 70 per cent of users. Anna (her
details have been changed) is a 14-year-old who has regularly used
cannabis for four years. Like many others, she clubs together with
friends to buy the drug, and describes how they divide it out: "Friends
were asking and they had given me some before. [I shared] to be kind and
to give some back."

The report warns that more guidance is needed on dealing with what it
describes as "offences of social supply of cannabis" and says that young
people need to be educated about the health risks.

Researchers conclude that "the findings from this and other studies show
that cannabis use is significantly embedded in the social world of many
young people. It is unlikely a marginal change in the drug's legal
status will have an impact."

This comes just weeks after the Association of Chief Police Officers
(Acpo) announced a U-turn on its previous position, and declared itself
in favour of seeing cannabis go back to being a class B drug.
Downgrading cannabis to a class C drug in 2004 has been blamed for
creating a climate of confusion about the legality of the drug and
sending mixed messages to young people.
LCA FORUM invites YOU:

Author: Independent on Sunday via UKCIA

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