I spent nine years supporting one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, problematic drug users. From daily injecting heroin users, to young people smoking countless grams of cannabis a week, their stories on why they were addicted to the drug made perfect sense. No-one told me they ‘just tried it once and now can’t stop’. Behind the chaos of their lives, there was a simple logic; ‘I feel unhappy, I use a drug, and for a short time I feel better….then the drug wears off and I want to do it again’.
Working in treatment taught me that problematic drug use is never just about the substance being used. People don’t suddenly, unexplainably become addicted for simply trying something once. Deaths due to overdose and contamination are most certainly a result of ‘one off’ use, but daily, problematic drug use is a consequence of social and psychological factors. Any addiction researcher or self-proclaimed ‘addict’ would agree.
This understanding and recognition that addiction is about far more than just the drug is nuanced and often missed when we look at policy. A report released by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) last week makes the same mistake. Yet their contribution is important, and very welcome from everyone here at Volteface.
The report highlights the strongest argument against the regulation of cannabis, the concern that regulation will increase the number of problematic drug users and statistically, such an assumption makes sense. It is estimated that around 10% of regular cannabis users use the drug problematically, and in a regulated market there will no doubt be an increase in use. A poll cited in the CSJ report found that of the 73% of 18-24 year old’s who stated they had never used cannabis, 10% of this group would try it in a regulated market. The CSJ therefore claim that a regulated market would see over a million new users, and create around 100,000 ‘problematic users’.
The problem with the CSJ figures were highlighted by Harry Sumnall (@Profhrs), Professor in Substance Misuse at Liverpool John Moores University, on Twitter over the weekend. The CSJ assume that the estimated one million 18-24 year olds who would try cannabis for the first time in a regulated market would go on to become regular users. Harry Sumnall suggests that based on the Crime Survey for England and Wales, around 5-6% of 18-24 year old first time users become regular users, a far more realistic estimate than the 10% suggested by the CSJ.
Regardless of this critique, the report highlights an uncomfortable truth of any call for regulation. Use is very likely to rise, and with that there may well be more problematic users in the UK. However, it might be that many existing problematic opiate and alcohol users ‘convert’ to using cannabis, a far safer substance, and one which may be more affordable and less stigmatised in a regulated market. While such a jump reduces the harm for the individual, it would certainly increase overall problematic cannabis use.
The question we should be answering, and where the CSJ report falls short, is does an increase in use necessarily mean an increase in overall harm? The left fear big business and the nature of profiteering, while the social conservative right (in their assumption that all drugs are bad/dangerous/addictive) worry that regulation in the hands of businesses quickly leads to many new found ‘addicts’.
The emerging cannabis market in North America is looking to engage a new cohort of ‘lower risk’ taking users, rather than increase the cohort of problematic users. Those who have never tried cannabis are likely to have not done so due to its legal status, and the emerging market wants them to try a product which they enjoy. This is why the North American businesses are encouraging vaping rather than smoking, growing strains of cannabis with low contents of THC, creating products which facilitate micro-dosing and edibles which don’t result in you being high for hours on end. A regulated market wants to succeed, and it knows that more money is to be made in less harmful products, particularly in the wake of trends that show consumers are placing greater importance on health and wellbeing.
The CSJ report fails to take into account the strengths of a regulated market. Lower risk profile adults will want a lower risk profile drug, and if they develop a problematic relationship, such a step will not be due to the drug alone. Any solid piece of research into addiction shows us such relationships are far more complex.
Social conservatives, in their dislike of disorder and need for social justice, often fail to engage with the concept of harm. No policy will completely eradicate the harm of drugs from a society, only the most authoritarian and oppressive state will come close, and even then access to some form of drug will likely exist. Peter Hitchens’ ‘we need to just fight the war’ model is a grim authoritarian police state.
The harm of drugs in a prohibition world is undoubtedly high and nine years working in drug treatment showed me the devastating consequences of our policies. Listening to Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker last week made me think; what is worse, a small number of people experiencing acute harm, or a larger number experiencing mild harm?
This thought experiment is one which the CSJ should engage with. A regulated cannabis market may well see more ‘problematic’ users, but what if their ‘problem’ was nowhere near as bad as it would be in an illicit market? What if regulation in one swift swoop eradicates vast amounts of harm in the form of prison sentences, social stigma and the consumption of more problematic drugs? Do we carry on with a system of concentrated harm, or do we embrace regulation as a way of mitigating the harm but accepting ‘problematic’ use might rise?
My thoughts are that less harm for more people is better than concentrated acute harm, yet having the alternative viewpoint is still valid and worthy of a debate. The CSJ, a think tank that values social order and justice might find such a debate worth their time, as high harm for the few can, and certainly does, create social fractures.
While I happen to believe a regulated cannabis market is the best way forward, many in the UK have deep rooted fears around social order should any drug be legalised. To date the drug reform movement in the UK has failed to provide a clear and honest narrative to address this concern, mainly due to ideological naivety and bias.
For too long the drug reform movement has sat in an ideological bubble, unsure how to engage socially conservative concerns, too fragile to accept that drug regulation comes with a risk.
The engagement of the CSJ shows that the issue of cannabis regulation has become a relevant, mainstream debate in Westminster. While Brexit dominates the news and minds of politicians both sides of Christmas, the momentum and pressure for political parties to have a stance on this issue is mounting. The CSJ have made the case of the socially conservative right and it is time for everyone to engage with it, regardless of their own ideological position.
The CSJ launching this report is significant because it shows how far the cannabis reform movement has come in the past few years. Amongst the most chaotic political backdrop, a socially conservative think-tank is taking the time to highlight concerns around cannabis regulation. The debate has taken a huge leap forward, and it is time for those who are interested to constructively engage with it.
Paul North is Director of External Affairs. Tweets @Paul__North