Drugs Live: Let’s Talk Cannabis


If Channel 4’s fascinating programme Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial served any purpose it was to reignite the debate on drug legalisation in the UK. In the build up to yesterday’s viewing Jon Snow was filmed taking in a gargantuan amount of cannabis and holding his breath for a whopping eight seconds – enough to kill off all but the most experienced stoner.

“I need to get out”, Snow called from inside an MRI scanner at University College London which was being used to assess how the brain functions – or doesn’t – under the foggy haze of cannabis use. It was not much of a surprise that Snow panicked: imagine inviting a teetotaller to smash several shots of strong stuff through a straw whilst upside down and then being shocked at witnessing an adverse reaction.

But yesterday’s programme did far more than put celebrities under duress. It explored the relationship between two different types of cannabis: Hash, which has a variable amount of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) chemical behind psychological effects and CBD (Cannabidiol) the compound which counter acts THC and provides some protection to the brain, and secondly Skunk, the hybrid variety of contemporary weed, which is recognised for its enhanced THC strength and – crucially – its minimal CBD levels.

*Spoiler alert*. Skunk is stronger than hash and heavy use of the drug has now been firmly associated with its long term assumptions: laziness, memory loss, a desire to listen to music, and now an increased risk of psychosis.

Professor Nutt, the government advisor who was sacked back in 2009 for his ‘off message’ comments that both ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol, updated his thoughts by splitting cannabis (on the below graph) into two segments: skunk and hash, in order to visualise how the two different substances could be ranked by safety. Unsurprisingly hash dropped to the safer end of the spectrum, whilst skunk stood slightly higher on the chart.

drugs chart professor nutt
Split into two segments, Hash and Skunk, Hash falls considerably down the chart and Skunk falls moderately (Not shown on graph)

Despite the progress made on cannabis by the programme and researchers from UCL, the really interesting moments popped up when the audience engaged in the debate. With political dogma remaining as rigid as ever; anecdotes were voiced of kids selling weed on the street without a care in the world and how this could only get worse under a legalised system.

Because that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s commonly known that drinkers prefer to buy their alcohol from kids in parks, right? No.

At a glance, the examples of when black market alcohol sales increase is during Ramadan in the Middle East, where drinking is prohibited and liquor stores are forced to close, during the prohibition era in America where alcohol was banned, and finally in dry states where the possibility of a drink is completely ruled out.  Black market sales increase the likelihood that children will become involved in illegal activity because trade has been pushed underground and therefore regulating the process is beyond the law.    

Ironically, harsher regulation on drugs and alcohol is more likely to involve youngsters because of the prospect of quick money and the fact that criminals don’t tend to consider UK employment law in the hiring process.

If we look to Colorado, where cannabis was recently legalised, there was a recorded drop in crime by a whopping 14.6% in the first three months after the change in the law. Media outlets have been covering the new disincentives that major suppliers have been facing with the US market now that the drug has become readily available across so many states. It is simple supply vs demand economics: the open demand for cannabis has led to a surge in its supply which has pushed down its sale price and has by proxy crippled the profit margins of suppliers in the underground market.

Copying some of these progressive policies may appear to be too much of a jump for the majority of today’s party leaders, except the Green Party, who want the government to be involved in the sale of cannabis (as well as everything else), and now the Liberal Democrats, who today announced their plans to move drugs policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health, changing the perception of drugs from a criminal to a health issue.

But still there is sticky opposition from the deficit concerned Tories and the political opportunists in the Labour Party. So, maybe the economic benefits of legalisation will speak to them?  

Paul Birch, of the new pro cannabis party CISTA, cited research from The Institute of Social and Economic Research, that predicts that the economic benefits of safe, legal and regulated cannabis are substantial: “up to £900m could be raised annually through taxation of regulated cannabis market. Meanwhile £361 million is currently spent every year on policing and treating users of illegally traded and consumed cannabis.” The change in policy would allow the thinly stretched police force to refocus its efforts on serious crime, and not crime which is viewed as self-inflicted.

Because it’s on the moral arguments where I feel that the debate is shut down. As breathing, thinking, conscious adults, shouldn’t decisions which solely affect ourselves be regulated by ourselves – as individuals? Such is the case on so many factors, such as alcohol use, aspirin pills, sky diving ventures and so on. The same should apply with cannabis.

Most of us would argue that we are best placed to make our own decisions and to be in charge of our own lives to the greatest extent possible. Isn’t it time we gave ourselves that chance and stopped locking people away for experimenting with a drug that only harms themselves? I think it’s time we took a serious look at our drugs policy and started thinking radically.      


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