Legalise it? Caleb Spencer tackles the UK’s relationship with weed.

Left: Obama is a supporter, Middle: Marijuana Plants, Right: Cancer Research Centre, Cambridge

Left: Obama is a supporter, Middle: Marijuana Plants, Right: Cancer Research Centre, Cambridge

AFTER BEING asked whether he had inhaled cannabis as a young man, Barack Obama replied: “I inhaled frequently, that was the point”. As President, Obama has overseen the biggest relaxation in drug-policy since the end of prohibition in 1933, and has declared publically that drinking alcohol may be worse for you than smoking weed.

In twenty-one different states and in the city of Washington DC, Americans are legally permitted to possess a specified amount of marijuana provided that it is for medical purposes and that it “might treat the condition”. Legitimate conditions vary greatly from state-to-state, but can be prescribed for anything from a migraine to the treatment of the symptoms of cancer or AIDS.

A big reason that so much confusion pervades the debate about cannabis is due to the complexity of its effects on the body. Scientists have found that the two most active compounds present in cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidol (CBD) have differing effects and can be isolated to treat a broad range of conditions or illnesses.

THC is the active compound which makes you high, and therefore has the medical benefit of making you hungry. For example, people suffering from nausea because of the symptoms of chemotherapy treatment, cancer, AIDS, or even the elderly who have lost their appetite, can all benefit from getting the munchies.

CBD may be most associated with the young Dravet Syndrome sufferer, Charlotte Figi, who was left in a catatonic state after suffering hundreds of seizures a week, only to be nearly killed by the drugs which were supposed to treat her. Subject of a CNN special report by Dr Sanjay Gupta, Charlotte was successfully able to make a remarkable recovery because her parents did some research, and found a local cannabis grower who bred plants which were high in CBD and low in THC. The plant was named ‘Charlotte’s Web’.

Also exciting are the lab experiments, recognised by Cancer Research UK, which show that cannabis can actively inhibit cancerous tumour growths and cause the death of certain cancers. These are however, as with many other promising applications, in the very early stages of development and in many cases, not even considered for human testing. Science has not yet fully mastered the complexity of the cannabis plant, and has thus been slow in understanding its full applicability, although its medical benefits have become irrefutable.

Besides the scientific consensus, and the fact that the Home Office provided British pharmaceutical company GW with a license to develop a cannabis based drug (Sativex) for the treatment of multiple sclerosis symptoms in 2010, cannabis remains illegal in the UK because the government says it has no therapeutic value. The problem seems to be that doctors are unable to prescribe what type of cannabis or what relative quantity of THC and CBD to prescribe because so little is known.

What is known is that cannabis is less harmful than either alcohol or tobacco, neither of which have any therapeutic value whatsoever. Professor David Nutt was the government drug advisor who was famously fired by the Labour government of Gordon Brown for speaking out against the government’s decision not to reclassify cannabis from a class-B to a class-C. He argues that the drinks industry –highly influential among politicians –and the press, especially The Daily Mail, exerted pressure on Brown to remain tough on cannabis to achieve votes and financial support. Despite scare stories in the media about the potential for schizophrenia, Nutt has also shown that there has been a steady decline in the prevalence of the mental disorder even though use of cannabis has continued to rise.

Even if you don’t smoke weed, you will know that cannabis users pose less of a threat to society than alcohol users. When do you hear about stoned people starting fights, or being hospitalised and having their stomachs pumped? The point is not that cannabis isn’t harmful, because any substance on earth –even water –has the potential to harm you if you consume enough of it. My point is that cannabis smokers do far more damage to themselves by smoking too much than they do to society.

Dr Lester Grinspoon, who is an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has said that “Marijuana is not only non-toxic –but remarkably non-toxic”. He adds that during his research into the adverse effects of cannabis, he “couldn’t find evidence of a single death”. And yet, in the UK, 4,425 people died as a result of alcohol related liver disease in 2012 alone, and alcohol related deaths worldwide are a staggering 2.5 million a year.

So the government policy on cannabis is illogical when we compare it to the effects of alcohol. First, cannabis has been proven to have therapeutic benefit for various conditions and diseases. The fact that Sativex was licensed in the UK proves this, as does the growing scientific evidence. Second, alcohol does more harm to people’s health and to society than cannabis. If alcohol was discovered tomorrow, there is no doubt that it would be made illegal. What’s more, the criminalisation of people who use cannabis has the effect of permanently damaging their future job prospects, the burdening of the tax payer by overburdening the prison and police services, and ultimately, does significant damage to society.

The dangers of smoking marijuana are real, especially today with significantly higher THC content than ever before. However, when we objectively look at cannabis as a substance, we see that government policy is illogical and counterproductive. The potential medical benefits of cannabis outweigh its danger to society, and by decriminalising, the government could control and tax the sale of cannabis, and at the same time reduce the burden on the tax payer.