The Schizophrenia And Psychosis Of Drug Policies.

Marijuana, the Mexican name for cannabis, is produced from the leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant (cannabis sativa), and according to the UN, is the most widely produced and consumed illicit drug in the world, as some 3.9% of world population use cannabis. The main forms of cannabis in the market include herbs, cannabis resin and cannabis oil. It is primarily smoked but can also be turned into beverages or made into foods such as cakes. In all its forms however, the active ingredient delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is present.

Historically, there are many accounts of cannabis medicinal use from as far back as the time of the Yellow Emperor circa 2700 BC in China when it was used as a cure for depression. The narcotic choice between cannabis and hashish (resin from cannabis leaves and flowers) may be dependent upon factors like availability, price, and potency but their use over time has relied on the feeling of euphoria which the drug confers.

Despite the long history of cannabis use in the world, the Egyptian delegation to the Second Opium Conference in 1924 successfully convinced delegates to include cannabis in the 1925 Convention and led to the drug being made illegal in the UK in 1928. Upon absorption of the 1925 Convention and others into the Single Convention in 1961, the cornerstone of the international drug control regime as we know it today, the international controls on cannabis were well established. In the UK for example, Cannabis is a Class B drug under the Misuse Of Drugs Act (1971) whose foundations were in the Single Convention of 1961.

Cannabis history and use has given researchers plenty of information as they investigate side effects of the drug and many research reports now associate mental problems such paranoia and depersonalisation with its habitual use. Furthermore, smoking marijuana exposes users to range of other medical conditions which usually afflict tobacco smokers.(ACMD).

Although several reports make cannabis a depressant, research from Osborne and Fogel (2008) found that among a group of Canadian habitual marijuana users, some used the drug to enhance their physical activity, others used it to hone their concentration during creative work, to relax and even for enhanced sexual pleasure. However, the use of cannabis whether as a stimulant, an analgesic, hallucinogen or depressant is prohibited in most countries and this “pharmacological determinism” fuels one of the arguments for a liberalization of the laws on cannabis use. Beyond that, are other arguments which suggest that cannabis is no worse than alcohol in moderation and that legalisation would allow better monitoring of addicted users as well as foster the creation of educational programs designed to assist young people avoid trying out and picking up the habit. The proponents of legalisation also note that with legalisation, the enforced quality control of cannabis sold would reduce the harm to those using the drug. Overall, the protagonists point out that because cannabis would be removed from the domain of the criminal underworld, cost pressures on the Criminal Justice System and Penal Reform would be alleviated with its legalisation.

As can be expected, the arguments are just as passionate by those who would rather see the ban kept in place, because in their view legalisation simply puts out a message to youngsters that it is not only okay to take drugs but that they are harmless – with the result that dealing with drug related problems in society become harder. The ranks of the antagonists are fuelled by the likes of the current US and the UK Governments who argue that cannabis is not only harmful with a high potential for misuse, but also that a lax on cannabis legalisation would act as a gateway to the use of harder drugs, which would further enrich the criminal ecosystem. No responsible government, the argument goes, would legalise a drug that impairs psychomotor performance, a move which would fly in the face of stringent health and safety laws found in most of the developed economies, as users would put themselves and others at risk while operating machines.

These arguments however cut little ice with voters in Colorado and Washington who in 2012, through referenda, voted to legalise the supply and use of recreational cannabis. This vote to modify the state laws has not been contested by the US Department Of Justice but spokespersons for the government have stressed that the US Federal laws are still in keeping with the country’s international obligations with respect to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Drugs and the 1988 Anti Trafficking Convention.

The position of these two states reflect a growing trend in the US as captured by the Gallup poll in October 2013 which showed that 58% of Americans supported legalisation to legalise cannabis. But it does not end with Washington and Colorado because CNN reported similar initiatives to commence in six other states by 2016, at which point it may simply be too late for the Federal Government to override the state legalisation. This may yet turn out to be one of the key issues distinguishing conservative from liberal candidates in the forthcoming US elections in 2016.

It would be difficult to argue that the two states have gone rogue because the results of the referenda are simply following international trends tracked by RAND Europe which in a recent report notes many changes of cannabis legislation on the European continent.

RAND reports that in Spain, the Supreme Court rulings have effectively decriminalised the possession and consumption of cannabis, while in Belgium, establishment of Cannabis Social Clubs are no longer being challenged. The report also intimates that there are stirrings in other jurisdictions such as Portugal, Denmark, Chile and Switzerland to also lax their cannabis laws.

Nevertheless, even with the actions by the two US States to permit recreational use of cannabis and 18 states plus the District Of Colombia allowing its medicinal use, the US, Europe, Africa – where prevalence of cannabis use is nearly twice the global average at 7.5% (UNODC 2013) – and most of the world are still a long way from adopting the position of Uruguay whose government has legislated to unilaterally override the international conventions which prohibit the production, distribution, possession and consumption of recreational cannabis.

In the interim the actions of Colorado and Washington permits the US to experiment with an alternate drug policy akin to that of the Netherlands where the revised Dutch Opium Act of 1976 recognises just two categories of drugs, Schedule I, ‘hard’ and Schedule II ‘soft’ drugs. (Contrast with the UK’s ABC and the US’s five Schedules)

Desirable results from that experiment would include reduced or at worst no change in the use of marijuana across all user groups – chippers, occasional, regular and intensive users. Furthermore, observers would like to see reductions of Driving Under the Influence of Drugs (DRUID) offences and other drug related crime, as well as a stabilisation of THC potency. The incidence of psychosis and other cannabis related health conditions should all see downwards trend while the number of users entering into treatment programmes should witness an upward trend.

Opponents of the experiment would urge the Federal Government to overturn the deviant states’ lax cannabis laws and point to Sweden where their restrictive laws meant their age of first use of cannabis was higher than most countries or to another country with a global restrictive drug policy, such as Norway, which, according to ESPAD, has the lowest lifetime prevalence of cannabis use among 15-16 year old students, 5%, compared to 35% in the US.

Likewise, those remaining doubtful of this experiment would refer to the prevalence of other drug usage such as ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines, heroine and GHB by cannabis users in Netherlands (where 55% of cannabis users surveyed affirmed to having taken these other drugs) as an example of how a permissive cannabis policy can act as a funnel or gateway to hard drugs.

These sceptics would also cite the report by Reitox National Focal Point (2011) showing a rising number of investigations into cases involving cannabis between 2003 and 2011 in the Netherlands, to debunk the notion that legalisation of cannabis would save taxpayers’ dollars involved in the enforcement of drug laws.

Yet in the midst of these arguments, in what must be a boon to those in favour of relaxed legislation, is the fact that research data from EMCDDA (2011) finds “no simple relationship” between legalisation of cannabis and the prevalence of cannabis use.

There is clarity however in the argument that converting cannabis trade from illicit to licit activity would go some way to alleviate the risk premium associated with the exorbitant mark-ups in the supply chain which transforms a kilogram of raw cannabis resin, made from about 36kg of cannabis priced at €80 in Morocco, into wholesale merchandise worth €1500 in Spain, and at the end of the chain, in a Dutch coffee shop, generating something in the order of €8000. (Kilmer and Burgdorf, 2012).

This lends the argument that, if removal of the risk of arrest and loss of goods through legalisation means a drop in prices, via a diminished risk premium as well as other associated distribution costs, then as reported by Van Laar et al (2013) it can be expected that the amount of cannabis purchased by users would increase with legalisation.

That increase, some would argue, is a potential source of revenue for any government if cannabis were legalised and taxed like alcohol and tobacco. However, those tendering such arguments should review figures published by the US administration which suggest that Federal, state and local taxes on alcohol totalling 15 billion dollars in 2009 were nothing but 17% of that year’s 238 billion dollars alcohol related cost from lost productivity, crime, treatment of alcohol related conditions and healthcare. The argument being that legalisation of cannabis would not only leave the nation in poor physical health but also worse off economically.

Still, the pressures for legalisation of cannabis use are building as can be seen by the 18 US states and the District of Columbia allowing medicinal use of cannabis despite the US Food and Drug Administration ruling that marijuana that was not only an unsuitable delivery system but had failed its key drug tests.

Governments and politicians ignoring scientific advice is not typical to the FDA in the US as exemplified by the UK Government Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) whose recommendation in 2007 for Cannabis to remain a Class C drug, was brushed aside and the drug was reclassified to Class B in 2009.

Notwithstanding that controversial decision which saw the Government’s Chief Scientific adviser Prof. David Nutt and three eminent colleagues resign from the ACMD, a more recent and similarly blatant deviation by politicians from scientific advice lies in the UK government’s banning of khat.

Khat or Qat refers to the leaves and shoots of the plant Catha edulis a tree-shrub found predominantly in Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya and it is largely consumed by people of the East and the Horn of Africa. Known as miraa in Kenya, the UK’s main supplier, khat came to prominence in the UK owing to Somali communities found around the country.

According to the ACMD khat is a stimulant owing to the amphetamine-like active ingredients cathione and cathine which endows chewers with increased energy levels, alertness, suppressed appetite and mild euphoria. It has been used to treat both depression, gastric ulcers and obesity. In a 2011 research paper in the Medical Journal of Australia, researchers found khat was merely a food item as it was harmless to the health of users. Little wonder the ACMD upheld and reaffirmed its 2005 recommendation in January 2013 that khat’s status should be left unchanged and out of the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The UK Home Secretary nevertheless ignored the ACMD advice and the government turned its back on 2.8 million pounds in annual revenues from the taxation of khat importation to weigh in on the ‘Haram’ rather than ‘Halal’ side of the Islamic debate and make khat which, according to Channel 4, is chewed by 90,000 people around the UK, a Class C drug.

The decision is a curious one because the government’s own advisory body, the ACMD does not report any medical harms with “direct causal links” to khat; it does not find any robust evidence of societal harms from khat, neither does it find evidential links between khat use and criminality from gangs or terrorism.

While pure forms of the active ingredients of khat are controlled substances under the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1988, (cathinone Schedule I and cathine Schedule III), the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) review in 2006 advised against a ban because in their expert view the potential for abuse and dependence was “low”.

Thus, the khat ban leaves many, and not just cynics, suggesting that it, like cannabis and other drug laws, has everything to do with politics and very little else. In 2011, the GCDP (Global Commission on Drug Policy) whose 22 members include former heads of governments, eminent business executives and a former UN secretary general labelled the current global drug policy a “failure” akin to the US alcohol prohibitions of the early twentieth century.

Khat chewers and those whose livelihoods depended on proceeds from khat trade, who now find their activities could cost them up to two years imprisonment for possession and seven times as much for supply, would be inclined to agree with the GCDP declaration and perhaps find ways to continue their chewing habit. If they ignored the law, it would not be unlike what internet cannabis suppliers do or what the millions of cannabis users in parks, festivals, their cars and homes do without a thought of the stiffer penalties associated to their activity. Recently Channel 4 reported a hundred thousand people had signed an e-petition championed by Green MP Caroline Lucas for a parliamentary debate on drugs and a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 – that’s a hundred thousand pleas for psychotic drug policies to reconnect with reality.

By Lloney Monono,
Bristol, UK

Khat: A review of its potential harms to the individual and communities in the UK
ACMD Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs January 2013

2011 Report : European school survey on substance use
European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (ESPAD)

The State Of The Drugs Problem In Europe
Annual Report 2012,
European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

Further insights into aspects of the illicit EU drugs market (2013),
European Commission

World Drug report 2013,
United Nations Office Office On Drugs And Crime

Cannabis: ClassifiCation and PubliC Health, 2008,
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

White House FAQ On Marijuana

Gallup October 2013

Categories: Law & Order

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1 reply

  1. Beautiful…I enjoyed it. Very revealing!

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