The ‘Vaping Epidemic’: How cannabis reformers in Britain should incorporate child safety into the argument for recreational legalisation

How can cannabis reformers learn from the reaction to the 'vaping epidemic'? Matt Rees explores...

by Matt Rees

The rise of vaping among teenagers has led to the creation of a moral panic in Britain. It is the subject of BBC Question Time debates. The tabloids have been licking their lips with scaremongering headlines written in Caps Lock. The government are fast-tracking attempts the ‘crack down’ on loopholes.

And, admittedly, there are fundamental concerns which rightly need addressing.

High lead and nickel levels have been found in illegal vapes. Companies are harnessing their newfound audience, marketing their products to teenagers through the creation of sweet inspired flavours like ‘Skittles’ and ‘Gummy Bears’. The prevalence of usage between 11-15-year-old children is expected to be as high as 15%. Schools are struggling to grapple with students disengaged and leaving lessons to instead have a few tokes on their Elf Bar or Elux.

Prachi2904, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

As a drug reform advocate, this reaction of outrage is hardly surprising. One only need look at the furore surrounding nitrous oxide use or ketamine on university campuses. However, it is particularly resonant when it comes to legalising cannabis in Britain for recreational use.

“What about the impact of weed on a child’s brain and development? Why make this more accessible?”

“Have you not seen what’s happened in Canada? Legalisation has seen a sharp rise in children going to hospital with poisonings after consuming edibles?”

“The smell of cannabis near children’s bedroom windows can ruin lives?” (see Keir Starmer).

The concerns are natural. I have often thought the same. However, the discussions surrounding the vaping ‘epidemic’ only strengthen the need for cannabis legalisation and control. Use amongst children should not be seen as an Achilles heel. It should instead be used to reframe the debate around public health, safety and protection among teenagers.

In a 2018 survey, 21% of fifteen-year-olds surveyed reported trying cannabis in Britain. Naturally, cannabis is the first drug young people mostly tend to experiment with, being socially acceptable and easy to access. Many have unproblematic relationships with it.

However, from anecdotal experience working in a pupil referral unit in Wakefield, some teenagers possess unhealthy addictions. Seeing children arrive into school so high they can barely listen to what you’re saying is not a pretty sight. Hearing of use since the age of twelve worries me. Learning that kids are smoking three to five spliffs a day at the age of fifteen is highly concerning. The obsession with the dealing culture and being ‘runners’ – boasting of the cash they have earnt, is something I feel uncomfortable around. I have had my eyes opened to a darker side of the same industry I want legalising.

This is precisely the logic that has driven the ‘Just Say No’ campaign. It is the concern shared by many that legalisation would create unchartered levels of danger for children. It is the notion that liberalisation would be unresponsible.

Mrs. Reagan speaking at a “Just Say No” Rally in Los Angeles

However, reality is different.

In the US where liberalisation has occurred, multiple studies have shown that levels of use by adolescents have not increased and in some cases declined. Moreover, regulating the market has allowed for places of access to be controlled – with dispensaries located away from schools, whilst ID is required. Additionally, advertising restrictions are implemented – preventing the product from being tailored to a teenage audience. Also, medicinal cannabis among young people can be life changing. It has proven to be instrumental in cases relating to epilepsy, shown by Hannah Deacon’s son who has now gone over 1000 days without a seizure – previously suffering 150 a week. There is also further research being conducted into using it medicinally to ease behavioural disorders

These are precisely the positive effects of legalisation that need to be harnessed and made clear to people. Thinking creatively and being transformational is also a must to capture the attention of those hesitant to reform.

Education is a prime example of this. There is always a reason behind why people use cannabis. The majority of it is innocent. However, among young people, it can be an escape from toxic home environments or trauma. With legalisation, an effective development of mental health services could be expanded, utilising money generated from the market to develop this and supporting children. Also, an acceptance to progress beyond teaching abstinence inside the classroom would build generations of well-informed individuals. This has been beneficial for sex-education – why not expand it for drugs?

Admittedly, it is always a hard battle fighting a media and political class firmly committed to the war on drugs. However, recent opinion polls show that a majority of people in Britain do support legalisation. The recent scrutiny placed on vaping is emblematic of the discourse surrounding the fears of a legal market. Yet, as has been shown across the world, usage can be contained. When combined with better education and more focus on why children do use weed, a more accepting and transformational solution could be found.

Ultimately, reformers should not shy away from embracing cannabis legalisation when it comes to children. It could be the argument that helps them win over the sceptics.

Matt is a freelance journalist for Volteface and aspiring policymaker on drug reform. His most notable project to date was undertaking research in Chicago on cannabis social equity measures in Illinois, contributing to an emerging field of policy analysis in the process. Matt is particularly invested in liberalising the UK’s approach to decriminalisation and harm reduction. For any queries, please contact

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