No report on the issue of cannabis is complete without some idea as to the demographics and motivations of its users. We already know the ‘what’ – 80% of the UK market is classed as skunk, high in THC and low in CBD – but what about the ‘who’, the ‘where’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’?
More than 2 million people are estimated to smoke cannabis in the UK, a figure equivalent to the combined total populations of Glasgow and Liverpool. It’s almost three times the number of those who report having taken the next most common illegal drug, cocaine. 1 This means that a minimum of 1 in 15 of the population smokes cannabis—and far more will have tried it at least once in their lifetime.
The majority of cannabis users come from middle- or low-income backgrounds. Someone earning less than £10,000 a year is almost five times as likely to be a frequent user as someone earning £50,000 or more (6.8% of the total population vs. 1.4%). Cannabis use falls the higher up the income scale you go, whereas cocaine use rises. 2 Similar patterns can be seen in the USA, where those with a household income of less than $20,000 account for 29% of all marijuana use but only 13% of all alcohol use and 19% of the total adult population. 3
These kind of consumers are not in general the kind of people who drive political reform. They are not the ones who write letters to newspapers or opinion columns for magazines: still less do they have access to the official and semi-official bodies responsible for inputs into policymaking. A good proportion of them do not vote regularly. They are, in short, the kind of citizens whom governments can and do forget about.
People smoke cannabis for any number of reasons, (and the overlap between these reasons and those for drinking alcohol in particular is striking). Those who begin in their teenage years are usually driven by curiosity, rebelliousness, peer pressure or a combination of all three. Those who continue into adult life may use cannabis to relax, to escape, to be sociable, to become intoxicated, to improve their mood, to self-medicate, for pain relief, or because they’re addicted and need to satisfy their physical and physiological cravings. It may also be that those with pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and psychosis are particularly predisposed to using cannabis and other drugs.
European cannabis smokers (including the British) tend to mix cannabis with tobacco much more than North American smokers do, which in turn leaves them more vulnerable to the threats to health posed by tobacco. 4
There’s also the perennial question of whether cannabis acts as a ‘gateway’ drug for other, harder, substances. This is a question that cannot be answered without also factoring in alcohol and tobacco use.
Studies have found that the socio-economic circumstances of young people consuming alcohol and tobacco has more effect on the chances of their future progression to hard drugs than any other factor. The divisions here – the ‘life chances’ which was one of David Cameron’s projects during his tenure in Downing Street – are much more important than the similarities.
A 2010 report by Norwegian researchers suggested the existence of two distinct groups among cannabis smokers: a small group of ‘troubled’ youths with low self-esteem, poor family relationships and possibly antisocial behaviour problems, and a larger group of better-adjusted teenagers. The first group were more than twice as likely to graduate to hard drugs than the second, irrespective of the amount of cannabis smoked. 5 Other reviews have also found that pre-existing factors about those who choose to smoke cannabis mostly explain the surface-level association between cannabis use and use of other illegal drugs. 6
The triangular (if largely unspoken) relationship between cannabis, tobacco and alcohol is both multi-layered and critical to this issue. Four in five British adults drink alcohol. One in five smoke cigarettes. 7 That’s 10m smokers, of whom around 6m can be classed as ‘dependent’ on one or more of the following counts: they have their first cigarette of the day within an hour of waking, they find it hard to go a day without smoking, or they want to quit.
The Royal Society for Public Health has ranked various drugs in order of the harms they cause, considered across a broad range of 16 criteria. With a total score of 72, alcohol was deemed substantially more harmful not just than tobacco (26) and cannabis (20) but also than heroin (55), crack (54), methamphetamine (33) and cocaine (27). Alcohol scored particularly badly in terms of economic cost, injury to others, family problems and crime: tobacco’s worst rankings were indirect fatalities, dependence, economic cost and direct physical health harm. 8
But the real and serious harm caused by alcohol and tobacco is largely accepted as the flipside of the pleasure these drugs give. The billions of pounds per annum spent by the NHS might be seen as a price worth paying even if they weren’t more than covered by the tens of billions of pounds in duties drinkers and smokers pay. 9 When that harm moves from the immediate consumer to those people around them, the state does sometimes act, such as with the banning of smoking in public places under the provisions of the 2006 Health Act.
But this works more often in theory than in practice. In many real world situations, the state either can not or will not act. More than half of all violent crime in the UK in 2015 was alcohol-related. 10 A similar proportion of child protection cases involve alcohol or other drugs. 11 Diagnosed cases of foetal alcohol syndrome have tripled in England since 2000. 12
Barack Obama said ‘As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.’ 13
Where hundreds of thousands of balanced studies have been conducted on the health effects of tobacco and alcohol, the literature on cannabis remains skewed towards its most negative aspects for one simple reason: its illegality. Scientists attempting any serious widespread study are often restricted to observational studies, while funding is often difficult to obtain for anything other than research into harms.
We know that a person cannot fatally overdose on pot in the way they can on alcohol. ‘You can die binge-drinking five minutes after you’ve been exposed to alcohol. That isn’t going to happen with marijuana,’ says Ruben Baler, a health scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 14 ‘The impact of marijuana use is much subtler.’
We also know the long-term effects both of heavy drinking and of tobacco smoking. Until scientists have the same opportunities with cannabis, however, a proper assessment of the effects will remain out of reach. Linking cannabis with various medical problems, as Professor Stewart Reece at the University of Queensland has done, is far from proving causality of same. 15
Already it is clear that keeping cannabis illegal merely because it is harmful does not square with the government’s policies on alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol and tobacco are legal because they have always been, because any attempts at prohibition would be totally unworkable, and because they generate billions of pounds in revenue for the Treasury every year.
Were cannabis made legal, it would not be long before similar considerations would apply to it too. The British are very good at grumbling about change when it happens and then accepting it as though it had always been thus. The public smoking ban is a good example of this: it caused outcry at the time but was very quickly assimilated. Now the vast majority of people are in favour of it, and no major political party bar UKIP is campaigning to reverse the ban.
Therefore we can see that cannabis:
- is widely smoked throughout the UK: so widely, in fact, as to make a mockery of the fact that it’s technically illegal, something which will be explored more fully in the next chapter concerning the current policy vacuum in this country.
- is increasingly a drug of the low- and middle-income classes, which also helps explain why it has fallen off the political radar in the past 20 years.
- is no more a gateway drug to harder substances than alcohol and tobacco, which is yet another reason why it should be treated exactly as those substances are – legalised, licensed and regulated.
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