Cannabis strength is rising in Europe and policy makers are missing the point

Yes, cannabis use can be harmful but the only practical solution is regulation.

A recent study has shown that the strength of European cannabis has almost doubled over the past decade. The study carried out by researchers at the university of Bath investigated herbal cannabis and cannabis resin (more commonly known hash). With extensive data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction they found “clear evidence for increases in the potency of both cannabis products in Europe from 2006 to 2016. This rise was more substantial for cannabis resin than herbal cannabis.”

The study shows both price and potency have risen, with cannabis resin, known as hash, being the most marked mover.

Potency was measured by the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the key psychoactive cannabinoid of the 100+ cannabinoids identified so far. As most reports correctly noted this increase in THC may be cause for concern as several studies have linked higher THC levels with problems related to addiction and mental health. What the authors of the study took pains to point out, which other news sources have omitted, is the absence of cannabidiol (CBD) data alongside the THC. This despite the fact that there have been credible reports that co-administering CBD reduces the acute effects of THC on verbal memory impairment  and psychotic‐like symptoms.

3 Arguments Why Marijuana Should Stay Illegal Reviewed by the Munich based Kurzgesagt

Nevertheless, let’s assume that CBD levels have either been stable or dropping (which is likely as the biochemical precursor is the same for both: if more THC is being biosynthesised there is less material left to produce CBD). The fact that the cannabis’ illegal status has led to a potency increase is predictable; the smuggler wants to maximise number of sales while reducing detection. Take the bootlegger of American prohibition, he has a choice between smuggling a bottle of wine in each boot or a bottle of whiskey. The likelihood of being caught is the same whether he takes the high potency whiskey or the low potency wine yet a bottle of whiskey will produce 20 drinks while the wine only four. The smuggler is five times more incentivised to take the stronger drug. Of course this phenomenon is not just seen in alcohol or cannabis prohibition, but also in opioid abuse as stronger drugs are invented, from morphine through to fentanyl. See Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell’s video above for a further exploration of this consequence of prohibition.

A common thread in public debate on cannabis is to conflate a detrimental effect of cannabis as an argument for extended prohibition, even when those detrimental effects are exacerbated by the lack of a regulated market. Take the following ‘infographic’ arguing against cannabis from a Canadian politician.

Ignoring, for now, the points that are either misrepresentation of the data or factually incorrect lets turn to myths/facts 3, 5 & 6:

Fact 3:

“Persistent marijuana use before adulthood can cause permanent mental impairment , such as  schizophrenia and memory loss. Teens are vulnerable while their brains are still forming.”

Fact 5:

“Cannabis can be addictive. 1 in 6 people who use marijuana during adolescence will develop an addiction.”

Fact 6:

“Adolescent exposure to marijuana causes long term mental health problems. Teens who used cannabis over a long term suffered decreases in their working memory, processing speed and reasoning.”

We can group these together as stating that cannabis use by young people has been shown to lead to negative outcomes in terms of mental health and dependence. Yet it is the very lack of a regulated market that leads to these outcomes. The fact that children can access cannabis is because the people who sell it are not bound by regulations, a drug dealer may well sell to and even recruit children to their enterprise. A supermarket routinely checks adults’ ID buying alcohol for fear of losing their licence.

The product they have is then more likely to be a higher potency because of the bootleggers’ incentives and higher doses increase the risk of negative consequences. Illegal growers do not target CBD which could be neuroprotective because it is not intoxicating. Regulators could mandate CBD’s presence.

Returning to the Prohibition, illegal brewers of moonshine whisky would often fail to remove the naturally occuring methanol, a far more toxic alcohol than the ethanol we normally consume, even though it could cause blindness and death. Prohibition for alcohol begins to sound akin to prohibition of cannabis: much of the population illegally consumes a drug which has been made more dangerous due a lack of control on sellers.

Just as with alcohol prohibition it is becoming increasingly clear that the way society responds to the harms of drug use has to be more nuanced than a blanket ban.

P.S. Responses to the other myths below:

1, 2 & 4. Cannabis advocates would not generally advocate smoking. Vapourisers, edible, tinctures, oromucosal sprays and other preparations would negate the need to damage lungs.

7. The infographic doesn’t state its source, and although there have been reports that teen cannabis use has dropped in regulated markets the fact that fewer youths are smoking cigarettes than using cannabis may just be factor of tobacco usage falling faster.

8. Even if Canada’s cannabis market has limited organised crime involvement, removing that revenue stream does reduce organised crime (and of course move the commerce into the tax base).

9. While likely to be unpleasant a child taking cannabis not going to cause permanent damage, that takes persistent use. Nor will they have a fatal overdose due to the paucity of cannabinoid receptors on the brain stem, which regulates breathing and circulation. If policy makers wanted cannabis stored in childproof containers that could only be achieved through regulation.

10. Of course driving under the influence should be prohibited, just as it is with regulated alcohol or pharmaceuticals that impair driving. This isn’t a reason not to have a regulated market, in fact “Epidemiological studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents; in contrast, unanimity exists that alcohol use increases crash risk.”

2 thoughts on “Cannabis strength is rising in Europe and policy makers are missing the point

  1. This is an important topic that society needs to be considering. It’s a pleasure to read such a well researched and thought provoking article that sheds so much light on the issues and helps debunk some of the hurdle producing myths .


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