Why the fight to rid our streets of cannabis has gone to pot - Andrew Vine

I CAN’T be alone in noticing that cannabis use grows ever more brazen.

The rancid stench of it can be caught on the streets, at bus stops, outside pubs and even, the other day, at a sixth-form college I was passing.

The smell of joints is becoming almost as routine as cigarette smoke, suggesting that vast numbers of people are using cannabis, and couldn’t care less who knows it, despite it being an illegal drug and possession a criminal offence.

What can be done to combat Britain's epidemic in cannabis use?

But bit by bit, our country is creeping towards decriminalisation of what is an extremely dangerous drug, despite the Government’s insistence that it has no intention of doing so. This was illustrated by figures published that revealed about two-thirds of those caught in possession face no criminal proceedings, instead receiving a slap on the wrist and being sent on their way, free to pay a return visit to the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer.

The police are giving cannabis users community resolutions – a measure that does not criminalise them, and involves those caught being given advice on the harmful effects of drug use. West Yorkshire Police is among the forces with the highest percentage increases in use of the orders.

It would be unfair to criticise the police for this policy. They are under-resourced and rightly focus their efforts to tackle drugs on producers and dealers. If they were to charge everyone caught with cannabis, forces would be overwhelmed and the courts system clogged up. The police are in the unenviable position of trying to find a pragmatic way of addressing a drug problem society is choosing to ignore.

Nevertheless, it still represents another step towards decriminalisation and the normalisation of drug use. Where once cannabis smokers were furtive and kept it behind closed doors with like-minded acquaintances, now they light up in public without a second thought.

Home Secretary Priti Patel is being urged to clamp down on the use of cannabis. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

There is an insidious pro-cannabis lobby at work. From so-called health food shops selling derivatives as cure-all wonder remedies to celebrities who proclaim their fondness for cannabis, it’s a drug that gets a lot of favourable PR. Even the former Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, did her bit during the election campaign by saying she favoured decriminalisation.

Most of all, though, it’s the image of cannabis as harmless that has seeped into the consciousness of many. It’s not like cocaine or heroin, they say, not addictive and no more harmful than having a few drinks. And they point to Holland, Canada and some US states where cannabis has been decriminalised as evidence that Britain should get real and follow suit.

This is a seductive argument. Make it legal, and you make society better and the job of the police easier by killing off the criminal trade. No more cannabis farms that need raiding, or street-corner dealing. No more time-consuming arrests and community resolutions to be issued. Free the police to get on with catching real criminals instead.

Home Secretary Priti Patel with Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the election. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Except we travel this route at our peril, because cannabis is anything but harmless. Its benign image belongs to the past and hippy pot-smokers proclaiming peace and love, frozen in time on films of rock festivals from the 60s and 70s.

The cannabis being dealt on our streets is not what they were smoking back then. It is infinitely more potent and causing immense harm, wrecking lives and resulting in appalling violence.

The pro-cannabis lobby chooses to ignore that Britain is suffering from an epidemic of mental health problems caused by it. We have the unenviable distinction of the highest rates of psychosis anywhere in Europe, and cannabis is driving them up.

Last summer, the NHS opened its first clinic dedicated to cannabis-induced psychosis. The consultant psychiatrist running it pointed out that two-thirds of her psychosis patients had a history of using it. Another consultant said 30 per cent of hospital admissions for mental illness are attributable to the drug.

It isn’t just users who are suffering. So are the people around them. A disturbing website – and now book based on it – Attacker Smoked Cannabis, chronicles a wave of suicides and psychopathic violence in which the drug is the central cause. The website is the work of a Bristol teacher, Ross Grainger, who collates newspaper reports of court cases and inquests from around Britain. There are dozens of them, and the comments of judges and coroners are damning of the effects of cannabis.

There is nothing remotely benign about any of this, but who in Government is taking notice? In Priti Patel, we have a Home Secretary with authoritarian instincts, and if she is to make good on Boris Johnson’s pledge to get tough on crime, tackling cannabis and the harm it is wreaking must be part of that. The swirl of foul-smelling smoke on our streets is the manifestation that Britain has a real, and very dangerous, problem.