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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Our cannabis policies put young people at risk

Volteface report finds increase in hospital admissions and prosecutions of young people for dealing.

Hospital admissions up

Easy access to highly potent cannabis becoming the norm, virtually no school time drugs education and out-of-date advice for parents of young cannabis users has resulted in a 54% increase in the number of young people in England and Wales being admitted to hospital with a cannabis-related mental health problem between 2012/13 and 2016/17.

 Those are just some of the findings of The Children’s Inquiry – the most comprehensive study in recent years of cannabis availability and use in the UK – produced by  drugs policy think tank Volteface.

In a poll conducted by Survation for the report, 22% of young people who had tried alcohol said it was ‘somewhat easy’ or ‘very easy’ to buy – compared to 44% of young people who had tried cannabis, while one-third of 16- and 17-year-olds who had tried cannabis said they felt using it had made them feel “worried or down”.

Other new figures obtained by Volteface show that – against a backdrop of cuts to police numbers and an emphasis in recent years on youth diversion – prosecutions and convictions of young people in England and Wales for supplying cannabis have worryingly increased by 15% and 26% respectively in the past five years, while adult prosecutions for this offence have dropped by 16% and there has only been a 1% increase in their convictions.

Children and young people are more and more frequently being exploited by adult drug dealers to distribute increasingly-potent cannabis to make money, gain status and to get cannabis to smoke for free. Young people are also increasingly selling cannabis themselves to their friends. The rise of social media platforms, such as Instagram and Snapchat, has provided an easy and convenient way for young people to connect with cannabis dealers. Young people carrying cannabis to sell are then more obvious to police when they gather on street corners and run deliveries on their bikes and are therefore easier to apprehend than adults.

The report recommends that dealing cannabis as a young person should be considered a potential indicator of vulnerability, rather than criminality, and should be treated as a safeguarding concern, much like in instances of county lines or child sexual exploitation.

Recommendations

The report makes a number of recommendations:

  1. Further investigation into how social media companies are facilitating cannabis dealing should feed into the code of practice for social media companies currently being considered by the Government.
  2. Improved diagnostic recording of young people presenting at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
  3. Cannabis dealing by young people should be considered a potential indicator of vulnerability, not criminality, and they should be provided with safeguarding and support.
  4. Intervention: there is an urgent need for investment in youth services aimed at helping improve young people’s self-esteem, confidence and life chances.
  5. A deeper understanding of the socio-economic circumstances of young people caught selling cannabis is necessary.
  6. In Scotland and Northern Ireland it is recommended that authorities specifically record cannabis-related offences amongst young people, rather than group data with other Class B drug offences.
  7. Overhaul drugs education in schools, with at least yearly sessions provided to pupils. Teachers and staff delivering drugs education should be trained by experts.
  8. Government drugs advice website FRANK should be updated urgently to include information on cannabis types and potency levels.
  9. We should look to the evidence emerging from Canada and the US to see what impact a legal, regulated cannabis market could have on young people’s wellbeing.

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