The number of people who received NHS treatment for cannabis misuse doubled in the three years after the Government downgraded the drug.
Last Updated: 2:06PM BST 14 Apr 2009
The increase is blamed in part on the decision by former Home Secretary David Blunkett to downgrade the drug from Class B to Class C Photo: DEREK BLAIR
Cases of children and teenagers who were treated by the health service for misusing the drug jumped by a third to 33 every day, along with 39 adults. Treatments ranged from counselling and support sessions to beat addiction, to treatment at secure units for drug-induced mental illness such as schizophrenia. The increase is blamed in part on the decision by former Home Secretary David Blunkett to downgrade the drug from Class B to Class C in January 2004. The policy shift saw a drop in users arrested by police for possession and, despite a toughening of the maximum penalties for dealing the drug, it was seen to send out the wrong message that cannabis was harmless and legal.
Doctors say the abuse of cannabis – particularly of stronger varieties of skunk that are now widely available – can contribute to mental health problems including psychosis, paranoia and schizophrenia. There can be harmful physical side effects, such as disrupting blood pressure and exacerbating heart and circulation disorders. Mr Blunkett’s decision was reversed earlier this year after a sustained campaign by police, medics and anti-drug campaigners. But the latest figures, revealed in a Parliamentary written answer, shows that the number of patients treated for cannabis-related conditions rose dramatically from 13,408 in 2004/05 – the first year the new policy was introduced – to 26,287 three years later.
After the number of people under the age of 18 admitted for the same complaint was first recorded in 2005, there was a rise of a third over two years from 9,043 to 12,021. In 2007/08, 579 people were admitted to psychiatric units for mental health problems associated with cannabis – 99 of them teenagers – up from 417 adults and 74 teenagers in 1997, when Labour came to power.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb told the Daily Mail: “These figures highlight a massive public health concern. The Government must take this disturbing trend very seriously.
“Ministers must stop using drugs classification as a political football. Their focus should be on making sure people are getting the message about the potential consequences both in terms of addiction and mental health problems.”
Norman Wells of Family and Youth Concern said the decision to downgrade cannabis sent out “confusing and dangerous messages about the drug’s supposed safety”.
But Harry Shapiro of the charity DrugScope questioned whether the rise in treatments for drug abuse was linked to the reclassification, saying young people did not base their decision on whether to use a drug on its legal status.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “Evidence suggests use of cannabis among young people is declining.
“More young people are getting help for problems with all drugs, including cannabis.
“Thanks to record investment, specialist substance misuse services have expanded greatly and now if a young person needs support, they are now much more likely to get it.”