The Children’s Inquiry
You can download the full report here
In The Children’s Inquiry, Volteface examines how effectively the UK’s cannabis policies are safeguarding young people from harm to their wellbeing and life chances. This is explored through considering the practical consequences of cannabis policies on young people’s access to cannabis and the type of cannabis they are accessing, the impact this can have on their mental health and the support available to them, their interaction with the criminal justice system as users and dealers of cannabis, and who they and their families can turn to for information and guidance on cannabis.
Access to cannabis, cannabis potency and mental health
A national poll commissioned by Volteface reveals that young people perceive cannabis to be easier to purchase than alcohol. Cannabis can be easier to obtain than alcohol because – as an illegal drug – there are no age restrictions on its purchasing and it is commonly distributed through peer networks. The rise of social media platforms, such as Snapchat and Instagram, has also facilitated easy access for young people.
A 2018 study revealed that nearly all of the cannabis available to buy on the black market is of a high potency variety. This is concerning as evidence indicates that early use of high potency cannabis can have a detrimental effect on mental wellbeing.
In line with this, statistics show that hospital presentations for cannabis-related mental health problems have increased for young people and, for some conditions, at a higher rate than adults. Volteface’s poll identified that one-third of 16 and 17-year-olds who had tried cannabis felt that using cannabis had made them feel worried or down.
In contrast, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have revealed that there has been a small decline in young people with cannabis-related mental health problems presenting at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Although anecdotal reports suggest that young people are facing barriers to accessing these services, there is the possibility that they are presenting but that their condition is not being recorded. This knowledge gap restricts the extent to which local agencies such as CAMHS can adequately support young people and plan preventative measures.
Cannabis and the criminal justice system
While fewer young people and adults are being criminalised for the possession and cultivation of cannabis, Volteface’s research reveals that young people are increasingly being criminalised for offences involved in the supply of cannabis, while fewer adults are being criminalised for this.
Figures obtained through FOI requests show that prosecutions of adults for the offences of possession with intent to supply and supplying cannabis are falling, but the same decrease cannot be seen for young people. In fact, the number of young people being prosecuted – and then convicted – of these offences is increasing. This is significant and concerning.
Within the context of cuts to policing and a deprioritisation of supply by police on the ground, a decline in the use of Stop and Search and an emphasis in recent years on policies of youth diversion, the criminalisation of young people should be decreasing.
Volteface’s research suggests that young people are increasingly dealing cannabis in the UK today, either being groomed by adults (with explicit or implicit coercion present) to do so on their behalf, or selling or giving it to their peers ‘socially’. This could explain why they are increasingly being criminalised for supply offences. The decline in adult prosecutions for the offences of possession with intent to supply and supplying cannabis and the increase in more young people being prosecuted for these offences could indicate that more young people are being exploited by adults to deal cannabis on their behalf.
Cuts to young people’s services offering support and intervention, a lack of opportunities, a desire for money and social status, as well as social media easily connecting young people with dealers, have been proposed as reasons that make young people increasingly vulnerable to becoming cannabis dealers.
Education and public awareness
The Children’s Inquiry argues that education and awareness around cannabis is not being prioritised.
This is a by-product of a lack of direction from the Government. Its draft Relationship and Sex Education guidance falls short of encouraging schools to provide an effective, evidence-based intervention around drugs. Inadequate training provided to teachers and educational staff around drugs also leaves the door wide open to poor practice where such education is delivered.
In the absence of good quality drugs education in schools, parents and guardians are not adequately equipped to educate their children on cannabis. Volteface’s research reveals that the vast majority of local authorities in England and Wales have not run any campaigns or initiatives to ensure that parents are informed about the risks associated with cannabis in the past 10 years.
Parents are often directed to FRANK, a Government-funded drug education website, but this does not contain any information about cannabis potency, despite well-evidenced concerns regarding its effects on young people’s wellbeing. Additionally, no public health body in the UK has a system in place to monitor the potency of cannabis.
Volteface’s findings paint a worrying picture of the effect of current cannabis policies on young people in the UK today. They are not being effectively safeguarded from the risk of potential harm to their wellbeing or life chances and multiple failings are compounding this risk.
Viable steps can be taken to begin to tackle the concerns raised in this report and The Children’s Inquiry suggests a number of recommendations for policy-makers to consider.
These include further investigation into the extent to which social media platforms are facilitating cannabis dealing among young people, and that dealing cannabis as a young person be considered a potential indicator of vulnerability, rather than criminality, and should be treated as a safeguarding concern, much like in instances of child sexual exploitation. Police and policy-makers should also consider applying diversion schemes to young people who are involved in the dealing of cannabis.
Greater investment in youth services could improve young people’s life chances and provide earlier opportunities to stop them becoming involved in cannabis dealing.
This report suggests that drugs education should be delivered in schools at least yearly and a system should be put in place to monitor the delivery of such education. The Department for Education must ensure that those delivering drugs education are adequately trained and advised by drugs education experts.
Public health bodies should also consider the implications of cannabis potency and take steps to ensure that that public is informed of the harms associated with high potency cannabis.
The UK should look to emerging evidence from Canada and the US to see what impact a legal, regulated cannabis market could have on young people’s wellbeing.
This report makes clear that a new and pragmatic conversation is necessary in the UK around cannabis and young people. One that is honest, both about the world in which today’s young people are growing up in, and the consequences of cannabis policies as they stand.
The Children’s Inquiry aims to be the start of that conversation.