The public health impact of the Government’s decision to downgrade cannabis is disclosed today in official figures showing a 50 per cent rise in the number of people requiring medical treatment after using the drug.
Since cannabis was downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug, the number of adults being treated in hospitals and clinics in England for its effects has risen to more than 16 500 a year. In addition, the number of children needing medical attention after smoking the drug has risen to more than 9 200.
Almost 500 adults and children are treated in hospitals and clinics every week for the effects of cannabis. Its health toll is revealed in official data compiled by health authorities and obtained by The Daily Telegraph.
Drug campaigners last night said the figures proved Labour’s decision to reclassify cannabis in January 2004, which made the penalties for its possession less severe, was badly mistaken and had sent out the wrong signals about it being a “soft” drug. Doctors say cannabis abuse can contribute to mental health problems including forms of psychosis, paranoia and schizophrenia. There can be harmful physical side-effects, disrupting blood pressure and exacerbating heart and circulation disorders.
The data will add to the pressure on Gordon Brown to reverse its reclassification when a review of the decision by Home Office scientific advisers concludes in the Spring. Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, a leading campaigner on drug issues since her son, Nick Mills, killed himself in despair at his addiction four years ago, said: “These results are shocking and dreadful. What more evidence do you need? You cannot sweep this under the carpet any longer. Children have to be told of the dangers of this what is wrongly called a soft-drug. It is extremely dangerous and it is destroying healthy, young minds.”
James Clappison, a Conservative member of the Commons home affairs committee, said: “The reclassification of cannabis sent the wrong message and was clearly the wrong decision. These figures show the evident dangers of cannabis abuse and support the case for the drug being restored to Category B.” The health authority figures show that 16 685 adults were treated by English hospital trusts after abusing cannabis in 2006-07. The previous year, it was 14 828 – up from 11 057 in 2004-05.
The data also shows that the number of children treated for using cannabis has risen from 8 014 in 2005-06 to 9 259 last year. In total, 25 944 people were treated for cannabis use last year – around 498 a week. In addition, around 70 000 people are treated for mental disorder as outpatients each year.
The figures suggest health authorities are treating more people for cannabis abuse than there are patients who have heart bypass operations or treatment for colon cancer. Some 21 000 people a year have a bypass operation and colon cancer is contracted by some 22 000 people a year.
Downgrading cannabis to a Class C drug placed it alongside steroids and some prescription anti-depressants. Possession of them can lead to a two-year prison sentence, but charges are rarely brought against people found with small quantities of such drugs. Class B drugs however, include more dangerous substances such as amphetamines. People found in possession of Class B drugs can face a five-year jail term and an unlimited fine.
There is no “substitute medication” available to treat cannabis problems, so the majority of National Health Service treatment is carried out by psychiatrists, therapists and counsellors. The independent review into its reclassification, by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was prompted by growing concern about the increasing prevalence of new high-strength forms of cannabis. So-called “super-skunk” leaves can be twice as potent as more traditional cannabis resin.
Advocates of downgrading or legalising cannabis say the risks are low compared to those of alcohol and tobacco. Some sufferers of chronic conditions like multiple sclerosis say the drug provides vital pain relief.
Many doctors say the risks outweigh the benefits, and the British Medical Association yesterday said the latest treatment figures strengthened its opposition to the decision to downgrade the drug. A BMA spokesman said: “This is drug that is mostly smoked, so that can cause lung damage and cancer. There are also concerns about the potential negative effect cannabis has on users’ psychiatric state.”
Addaction, a charity that treats people with drug problems, warned that children suffered particularly from cannabis abuse. “Young people often use cannabis at crucial development stages in their lives, and it does have serious impacts on mental health and physical development,” a spokesman said.
Last night, the Department of Health insisted that the rising numbers of treatments reflect improvements in drug treatment and not rising cannabis use. However, the department also announced yesterday that the budget for the National Treatment Agency, which co-ordinates drug treatment, will be frozen at 2007 levels for the next three years. The agency will also be expected to find “efficiency savings” of £50 million a year from its £398 million annual budget.
Despite the freeze in his budget, Paul Hayes, the head of the agency, insisted that the number of drug treatments it can fund will rise. “By becoming more efficient at delivering the best outcomes for individuals we will be able to continue to increase the number of people into treatment, while increasing treatment effectiveness,” he said.
Andrew Lansley, the Conservative health spokesman, said Labour was wasting vast amounts of money. “The Government is ignoring the fact that its drug treatment policy is fundamentally misguided. Conservatives have promised to introduce abstinence-based treatment for drug addicts to help them get off drugs for good,” he said.
Source: Telegraph.co.uk 13th Jan 2008