13 Jun So why the decline in Cannabis use?

A couple of weeks ago the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published a report on the rates of drug use in Europe (European Drug Report 2015: Trends and Developments) which contained an interesting snippet of information: Cannabis use in the UK is dropping and has been for the past 15 years. The reaction on CLEAR’s Facebook page was close to outrage with many people saying how it couldn’t be true because everyone they knew smoked, but perhaps it’s worth taking stock.

The statistic often quoted in the media is that 15 years ago the UK topped the European cannabis using league, now it’s almost halved in England and Wales. This despite a growing amount of use almost everywhere else on the continent.

Rates of cannabis use EU

The first thing to know is that 15 years ago was 2000, which had been preceded by one of these waves of youth culture uprisings we seem to have from time to time, this one, very British in origin of course, was the rave culture and it featured a lot of drug use of all sorts, along with cannabis.

Rave burst onto the scene in the late 1980’s and despite some draconian new laws which tried to outlaw music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” it grew to be massively popular by the mid 1990’s. Rave was fueled in no small part by the use of MDMA ecstasy but cannabis fitted into this very well, in pre-party, chill out sessions during and after the party. Rave gave a huge boost to cannabis use in the UK and probably accounts for the mass uptake by the time of the millennium madness period around 2000.


A free party rave

Since then things have calmed down a lot, albeit not entirely naturally as new licensing laws, strongly enforced anti rave party policies have tried to supress the ‘free party’ illegal raves and door searches and all the rest have all but killed legal club raves. It’s whittled away at what was a very vibrant and creative if somewhat anarchic culture. This attrition continues to this day, Glasgow having just lost its famous Arches nightclub. Because of all this the rave spike in cannabis use has been knocked back.

So what would be interesting to know is what the underlying trend of cannabis use is if the rave factor is taken out, but of course we can’t know that for sure. However it is worth bearing in mind that before the rave peak there was a big dip in cannabis popularity. During the punk explosion of the mid 70’s cannabis use was seen as something belonging to the old hippy culture of the 60’s.

never trust a hippy

1970’s Punk culture

Sadly there is little if any hard data to be able to study long term trends along with everything else to do with cannabis thanks to the workings of prohibition.

One thing that can be discounted is the effect of changing the classification of cannabis in the misuse of Drugs Act from B to C and back to B. The steep decline started around 2002, just before the time cannabis was downgraded to class C, showing an uptick around the time it was put back to class B. Cannabis use is illegal, making it a bit less illegal and then making it more illegal again was always an irrelevance.

Other factors which have been suggested are the growth in market share of so-called “skunk” cannabis at the expense of imported hash.

The first argument goes that the effect of high potency cannabis is less enjoyable than the oldskool hash and people don’t enjoy it as much. The market shift actually happened prior to 2000, so it doesn’t seem likely that its a matter of consumers not liking the (claimed) stronger versions.

There has also be the sustained “reefer madness” campaign built around fears of psychosis inducing “skunk”. The fears created by the reefer madness claims might have played a part in deterring use. The message put about by the media, police and politicians has been consistent and relentless, if not always accurate.

Price is undoubtedly a major factor and the police raids on the grow farms have pushed up the price, increasing the profits for organised crime but perhaps putting cannabis out of reach of many.

Then we have the ‘legal high’ Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists drugs – SCRAs or so-called “synthetic cannabis”. Tellingly, these drugs – which are far more dangerous than the worst of the Daily Mail ‘skunk’ variety of cannabis are the most popular of the ‘legal highs’ in the UK. If its true that prohibition has encouraged cannabis consumers to use these nasty chemicals en masse it will have been a classic (additional) unintended consequence of prohibition. How much of the cannabis trade they have captured is, again, unknown.

The really big development in the past 15 years though has been the ever increasing anti tobacco campaign. Now some of us saw this coming and it’s no real surprise that a pastime which has been so unfortunately linked to tobacco use would be hit by the drive against smoking. Fact is that smoking tobacco is on the retreat now and it just isn’t as socially accepted as it used to be, which is a good thing.

This has huge implications for the sections of the cannabis law reform movement that have been in denial about the tobacco link for so long although it’s an issue some still refuse to acknowledge, but it surely can’t be ignored any longer.

Events like 420 day, ‘cannabis picnics’ and the like held in the UK where people gather to smoke joints still promote this connection and show the world that cannabis use involves heavy tobacco use – and mostly by young people.

There has been an urgent need to address this issue for years now and the time has come to acknowledge the truth that cannabis use has to ditch the tobacco millstone. That can only be a good thing for all concerned long term and as the government refuses to promote a safer use campaign, it falls to us as law reformers to do so.

It’s worth pointing out that they don’t have this problem in the US, where cannabis is rarely smoked mixed with tobacco. Over there cannabis demos aren’t the self defeating PR disasters they are here.

The public image of cannabis use really needs a reboot. It has long been promoted as something rebellious young people do, or worse the awful and outdated unwashed “stoner” stereotype. Neither reflect the true nature of cannabis use.

In truth now cannabis use is established over a wide demographic, people of all ages use cannabis. The good news is that, in the US at least, this is understood as cannabis comes out of the shadows. The Drug Policy Alliance is now offering an alternative series of clips for news organisations to use when reporting cannabis use

As a footnote it’s worth noting that the last years of the graph does show another uptick in use, the story might not be over yet. Also it is important to remember those who denied the claims on our facebook page may not be wrong. Because of the workings of prohibition in truth no-one really knows what’s going on, there simply can never be accurate studies made of any illegal activity and it is as true now as ever: Most cannabis users don’t get caught and so never show on statistics.

It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

Derek WIlliams