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Why cannabis could pose a bigger threat than cocaine and heroin

This is the subject of my latest Scotsman column, published in today's paper (14th May 2024).

The widespread, casual use of high-strength marijuana could blight the lives of a generation unless we wake up to what the World Health Organisation describes as a ‘serious public health threat’.

Scotland’s alcohol and drug problems are well known and frequently discussed, not least in this column. Our dismal toll of drug deaths is on the rise again, partly due to new synthetic heroin. Cocaine remains popular as do a variety of other designer drugs.

Meanwhile alcohol continues to be the substance that does us most harm. On a recent visit to a busy substance-abuse recovery service, the clients almost exactly reflected the hierarchy of misuse. The largest number were there as a result of alcohol, then cocaine, then heroin and the rest. Many were misusing a cocktail of substances.

No surprises there, but what was interesting was the position of cannabis. It’s so common that it was hardly mentioned by the clients. So deeply embedded is its use that they didn’t see it as a drug at all, let alone a dangerous one, just part of normal life.

Cannabis is much stronger than that 'hash' used by the 'flower power' movement in the 1960s (Picture: Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images).

Cannabis not harmless

The most recent research on cannabis use by young people in Scotland seems to bear this out, and there are some alarming statistics. A study of school-aged children reported that almost a quarter of teenage boys had used cannabis, the highest rate for adolescent boys out of 44 countries.

A number of risk factors seem on a collision course here. First, the belief that cannabis is a harmless recreational drug is not true. Mostly gone is the weak ‘hash’ so fondly remembered by the flower-power generation. It’s been replaced by the ‘skunk’ varieties of today, many times more powerful, which is firmly linked to psychosis and paranoia with lasting damage to mental health.

Young people are particularly vulnerable especially when strong cannabis is taken in conjunction with alcohol. Unlike some other deadly drugs, the effects of cannabis and alcohol use in our young may not be visible for some time but we know enough to be able to recognise the latest data as a clear and present warning.

Sound the alarm

We cannot be caught napping, as we were when heroin overwhelmed us in the 1970s. Of course we must continue our programmes to address heroin, cocaine, and the rest. In doing so we must examine all options and consider all evidence-based approaches. But for the long-term health of our young people we must wake up and prioritise the cannabis threat.

The World Health Organisation defines the issue as a "serious public health threat”. We cannot say we have not been warned for, due to its widespread use, the effects of cannabis may dwarf that of heroin and cocaine. The truth is that only a tiny minority of us will ever misuse heroin, more will come across cocaine but still a minority. Given its widespread use, cannabis could blight a generation.

It’s time to sound the alarm and start raising this up our public health priorities, especially for young people. We know we cannot arrest or legislate our way out of this minefield, but we should have confidence that we can educate our way through it. We must give our young people the facts they need to make good life choices.

We must lift our eyes above the horizon, dismiss the myths, and face the facts about cannabis.

Tom Wood is a writer, former police officer and chair of Alcohol and Drugs Action Teams

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