‘Chicken shops and McDonald’s have become the new youth centres’: Why are young people using and selling cannabis?

by Hardeep Matharu

In September, Volteface published its seminal report The Children’s Inquiry examining how effectively the UK’s cannabis policies are safeguarding young people.

The report was a wide-ranging examination of how easily young people are able to obtain cannabis and the type of cannabis they are using, the repercussions of this for their wellbeing and the support available to them; the response of the criminal justice system to young people as users and dealers of cannabis; and the education provided to young people in schools and to their parents and guardians through public health campaigns on cannabis.

The Children’s Inquiry, which was endorsed by MPs including Labour’s David Lammy and the Children’s Commissioner for England, concluded that cannabis laws in this country are having the opposite effect to the one intended. Rather than preventing young people from using cannabis and protecting them against any potential risk of harm to their wellbeing or life chances that could result, the UK’s current cannabis policies are actually putting young people at risk.

Last month, Volteface hosted a conference for professionals working with young people to explore further the issues raised by the report.

What follows are highlights from the speakers on the day.

Paul Sweeney MP

That poverty and a lack of opportunities for people leads to problematic drug use must be recognised, according to the Labour MP for Glasgow North East who said “the Government is creating the structure for the problems to exist”.

He said control must be taken from the “criminal gangs that are destroying the lives of young people” through the illicit drugs trade.

“The hardest thing is getting involved in the glamour of gangs and the drug running trade is quite superficially attractive because in a poverty-stricken area where there’s little social mobility, there’s little opportunity, the quick acquisition of material wealth is an attractive proposition – I can get new trainers, I can get a nice car. 

“The war on drugs isn’t a war on drugs it’s a war on people and usually those in vulnerable communities.”

Jack, 18

Jack first smoked cannabis when he was 13. He started using it as a result of depression and anxiety and quickly became dependent on it. Drug counselling provided the help he needed.

The teenager said he did not think that cannabis was addictive when he first started smoking it, but believes it is. He said there is a lot of disinformation among young people about the drug, including the perception that cannabis is a “golden drug which has no consequences”.

“All young people are very aware of the fact that no one’s ever died directly from cannabis use alone,” he said. “It’s a anecdote that cannabis isn’t addictive, but it’s extremely psychologically addictive.”

Jack – who said that “being high was how I had fun” – believes young people should not use cannabis as a “happy little release” for their mental health issues and that the short-term escapism it provides actually makes underlying problems worse. Mental health is the main reason his peers use cannabis, he said.

“The majority of people I know that have ever become dependent are extremely consistent users with feelings of depression, anxiety and then more paranoia… It needs to be said that this is not a viable way to fix your mental health issues.”

Jack said that cannabis education, which for him has been non-existent in school, should be framed through the issue of mental health, which would then “be far harder for people to oppose”. Most young people have no way of discerning between different types and potencies of cannabis and education must be provided around these aspects of the drug, he believes.

“It will be drilled into you how dangerous cigarettes, alcohol are, how to be safe if you’re going to drink, but in reality the things that most young people are actually in danger from are the things that they refuse to teach on because if they teach on it, they’re seen as condoning use… Young people are going to use drugs if you like it or not, you need to make people as informed as they can be before they make that decision because right now there isn’t any information.”

The schoolboy said social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube – which young people already use – should be utilised to better inform them about cannabis and that messages should come from “influencers” who already have a following.

Discussing their perceptions of the law, Jack said that most young people “operate as if cannabis is legal” and fear their parents finding out far more than the police.

“Young people are very aware that there are fewer police officers on the streets now and they’re not likely to be caught,” he said.

According to Jack, those who sell cannabis believe this puts them at a greater risk of getting caught, but that they see it as a risk worth taking.

“The social status, the money, the actual access to the drug itself and being a drug dealer is unparalleled. Most young people have no other way of making that kind of money, having that kind of respect from their peers, or having that kind of access to the drugs they might already be dependent on. The problem with that though is the young people who are criminalised and get a criminal record then get stuck in a cycle where they have to keep buying because they have no other options. Once you’ve got a single drug offence, realistically, you’re not going to be able to get a job or they don’t believe they have that prospect and the only thing for them to do is to get back into the thing that got them arrested in the first place. They have no way out. Most young people who do sell cannabis start as a way to fund their own use. A lot of people can’t afford the amount of weed they wished they could smoke or they’re smoking more and more every day.”

For some young people, Jack said that selling cannabis is the only way they can hope to make money and obtain respect among their peers. The lack of opportunities for young people, including an unstable job market, and fewer services, mean children are growing up today disillusioned.

“I was just a bored kid walking around my street kicking a ball against the wall and a friend offered me some weed,” he added.

Derek Tracy

The consultant psychiatrist and NHS clinical director believes that cannabis occupies “a very unique space in our culture” in terms of how it is viewed and discussed.

He said it is necessary to recognise the “conflicting but equal truths” that many people who use drugs and alcohol have no problems, some people are profoundly impacted by them, and some drugs cause harm for some people but have medicinal uses for others.

Cannabis does cause harm, but most people who use it don’t have problems, Dr Tracy said.  

The doctor said it is “interesting sociologically” that this point generates the debate that it does, in a way that the causal social factors of why people turn to cannabis do not. But, he believes that, in the past three years, a more nuanced conversation around cannabis has begun – one which does not ask or look for binary questions and answers.

Discussing the mental health repercussions of cannabis use, he said that “the best data suggests that if no one smoked cannabis, we would have perhaps 25% fewer cases of psychosis. But, most people who smoke cannabis, do not become psychotic”.  

Dr Tracy said it “drives me crazy” when he hears of people being denied access to mental health services because they are using drugs, and that “you can only drive safe behaviour and practice” through facts and education, not telling people not to take them.

He said he is in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis, but worries about unintended consequences. It could be a way, however, to get people to smoke cannabis with lower levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that gets users ‘high’. This is particularly relevant to young people, whose brains are still developing, and can be adversely affected by stronger strains of cannabis.

“The core intervention has to be social and the core issue for me is education and how we have honest conversations with all these uncomfortable truths,” Dr Tracy concluded.

Neil Woods

For the former undercover drugs officer, child criminal exploitation by adult drug dealers is “a perfect response to police action” as young people are malleable and disposable.

“Dealers are using children as a result of police success,” he said.

Mr Woods said “prohibition has created a situation where the most violent are the most successful” and that children are having to learn to become violent to deal with the consequences of the black market in drugs.

The cannabis market is where children first come into contact with organised crime, he said.

“It’s a child protection issue because dealers don’t ask for ID.”

Rhiannon Sawyer

Ms Sawyer, an area manager in London at The Children’s Society charity, said that “abject poverty” is the most significant factor in making a young person vulnerable to child criminal exploitation.

She said that vulnerabilities are over-represented in the cohort of children who are exploited, including: children with learning disabilities, those who have witnessed domestic violence as a child, children who are in care, children who have been excluded from mainstream education and are in PRUs, and children with mental health or substance misuse issues or those with parents who have these issues.

The grooming of young people to involve them in criminal activity can occur over two hours at a party or over the course of six months, she said.

“Young people who might have grown up in a state of powerlessness, grown up with an abusive father or at a school where you’re constantly in trouble or teachers telling you how bad you are and keeping you in isolation, you might be like ‘actually, this a way to get power in my local area or in my peer group’.

“Once that grooming process is done, that child is basically brainwashed. He or she believes they are a free agent. He or she believes they’re an autonomous drug dealer – ‘let’s make a bit of money, there’s no risk’… The important thing about grooming is that it removes any self-determination from the child so there can be no concept of consent where a child is groomed. In fact, a refusal to admit a problem and even protect the abuser, to run towards the abuser, is the sign of a groomed child.”

Discussing how poverty can make children particularly vulnerable to being groomed and exploited, she added: “Everyone’s talked about cuts in youth services. Chicken shops and McDonald’s have become the new youth centres, but there’s no designated safeguarding lead able to have trusted and nurturing conversations with young people in those spaces.”

Hardeep Matharu is a senior writer and researcher at Volteface. Tweets @Hardeep_Matharu

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