East London, Mile End.
Friday afternoon. The smell of cannabis hangs in the air. Nothing new, surely we have all been exposed to the drug at one point or another – whether through knowing someone who frequently smokes, or being approached by strangers on Mile End Road with an all too familiar: ‘smoke weed?’. The BBC recently reported that according to MPs, cannabis was to be legalised within the next five to ten years – but how can the legalisation of a drug take place, where the teaching of responsible consumption is absent?
British youth culture seems desensitised to the fact that possession and dealing of the drug is still officially illegal in the UK. Part of the reason is cannabis’ reputation as a ‘harmless drug’, which is widely believed not to cause physical dependence. While research has shown that cannabis’ psychoactive constituent, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), does have the potential to lead to physical dependence, its withdrawal symptoms are ‘not readily recognized as a clinically relevant’. Put simply, the withdrawal symptoms are highly individual and not detrimental to physical health. However, we need to be weary of both sides of the argument: research on cannabis is not nearly extensive enough to definitively answer all our questions about the drug and its long term effects, both positive and negative.
Meanwhile, young Londoners are growing tired of conservative politics stifling the process of investigation of the drug: There are currently 8 official open petitions that demand the legalisation and/ or decriminalisation of cannabis. The most signed petition currently counts over 16,670 signatures and demands ‘A Vote on Cannabis’. On 20 August 2019, the government responded by saying they have no intention of legalising the drug:
‘The legalisation of drugs in the UK would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families and communities. Legalisation would send the wrong message to the vast majority of people who do not take drugs, especially young and vulnerable people.’
Of course they are right: Drug dependence is a serious topic and nothing to glamourise. Yet, oddly, when billion dollar drug industries, like the alcohol industry, profit from sales generated through advertising their products as sexy, fun and glamorous, the ‘harms of drug dependence’ are long forgotten. The key problem I see with the legalisation of cannabis is not the known and unknown dangers that cannabis supposedly brings with it: it is that we refuse to teach young people how to consume drugs responsibly. This is particularly dangerous when they become used as a way to suppress emotions – an occurrence that affects all generations.
So, a further issue emerges: the difficulty of accessing mental health support services. Even with free healthcare, such as the NHS, mental health largely continues to be a financially private matter. Put simply, if you require therapy but you are not posing an imminent threat to yourself or others, chances are you will not receive free help. This is precisely why people see themselves forced to resort to drug abuse, which may include but not be limited to cannabis.
If legalising cannabis is a process, which is being pushed and fought for, then the first step needs to be teaching moderate and responsible consumption, as well as ensuring easy access to effective mental health support systems – it is the only way to prevent the abuse of the drug as way of escapism under the guise of “coping”.