Some people say cannabis is a mental health risk. Here’s how to make it safer.

UK drugs policy
Sam Woolfe

Drug policy thinktank Volteface has published a report titled Street Lottery: Cannabis Potency and Mental Health. Authors examine the mental health risks of cannabis in the UK. And they suggest that these risks are heightened due to the drug’s illegal status.

What the research tells us

The thinktank looked at the academic research on cannabis. And it found three factors of the black market which can make street cannabis harmful:

The first is the level of THC [Tetrahydrocannabinol]. Higher amounts have stronger correlations with dependency and problematic side effects from paranoia to psychotic episodes. The second factor is how much CBD [Cannabidiol] is present. This appears to be a protective chemical, which mitigates against the negative effects of THC. Finally, the age of the consumer is important when considering longer-term effects on cognition and brain development. Research indicates that, during the period when someone’s brain is developing and growing, cannabis can have a detrimental effect on this process.

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Authors concluded that buying cannabis in the UK is therefore a ‘lottery’, since users have limited control over what they are buying.

High potency cannabis

Volteface worked alongside Dr Oliver Sutcliffe of Manchester Metropolitan University to test the amount of chemical components THC and CBD in 50 samples of cannabis that Manchester Metropolitan Police had seized. Data shows that:

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  • “The mean THC content was 14.7%”.
  • “90% samples contained THC contents greater than 10%”.
  • “The mean CBD content was 0.38%”.
  • “The mean THC:CBD ratio was 48:1”.

So the THC content is very high, with authors emphasising that “the CBD content in almost all cases is negligible”. They add:

While greater variation in THC and CBD contents and ratios may be more common among cannabis that is home-grown or ordered online by enthusiasts, it is evident that street cannabis shows very little variation.

The benefits of a regulated market

High potency (high THC) cannabis is the norm, while low potency (high CBD) cannabis is hard to come by. If the drug were regulated, however, buyers would have the option to purchase a product with less of a mental health risk.

Switzerland, for example, has legalised low potency cannabis. You can buy cannabis with a THC content of 0.8% and a CBD content of 18%. (The THC limit in the country is 1%.)

Peter Hitchens says we need stricter law enforcement

Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens is a vocal opponent of cannabis legalisation. Hitchens bemoans [8:10] how, since the 1970s, the UK has abandoned the policy of punishing possession of drugs. Elsewhere, he has said [5:20]:

Cannabis has been effectively a decriminalised drug in this country for many years.

Hitchens references the fact that, if a police officer finds you in possession of cannabis, you will often just get a warning. He repeatedly makes the case for stricter law enforcement. One of the reasons he wants possession to be more severely punished is to deter people from using cannabis. He says it is a “dangerous” drug, with “its use closely correlated with irreversible mental illness”.

However, stricter law enforcement against possession won’t eradicate the black market. High potency cannabis will still proliferate. And as this report from Volteface indicates, if we want to reduce the drug’s mental health risks, then we need more control over how cannabis is produced.

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