Study finds Cannabis isn’t all that dangerous, but why is it a secret?

David Nutt, the professor famously sacked by the last Labour government for undermining the official policy toward cannabis by telling the truth has just issued another interesting study called “Popular intoxicants: what lessons can be learned from the last 40 years of alcohol and cannabis regulation?” which can be read here on the website of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The abstract (a short summary of the study) states

In this paper we discuss the relative physical, psychological and social harms of the two most frequently used intoxicant drugs in the UK, namely cannabis and alcohol. Over the past 40 years, the use of both drugs has risen significantly with differential consequences. It is argued that increased policing of cannabis use under the current drug classification system will lead to increased criminalization of young people, but is unlikely to significantly reduce the rates of schizophrenia and psychosis. In comparison, increases in alcohol drinking are related to significant increases in liver cirrhosis hospital admissions and mortality, at a time when mortality rates from other major causes are on the decline. A recent expert-led comparison of the health and social harms to the user and to others caused by the most commonly used drugs in the UK showed alcohol to be more than twice as harmful as cannabis to users, and five times as harmful as cannabis to others. The findings underline the need for a coherent, evidence-based drugs policy that enables individuals to make informed decisions about the consequences of their drug use.

This looks like an interesting study and one which should be in the public domain to help inform both politicians and the general population about this important issue. It should be remembered that the whole reason for the drugs policy is to” control” dangerous  and damaging drugs and that the whole justification for criminalising millions of people is based on the potential for harm from using these drugs. There is a also a debate to had about the status of alcohol which, for reasons only properly understood by politicians, isn’t considered to be a “drug” in the same way as cannabis is and therfor is not subjected to the same draconian  policy.

In short, we need to know the sort of information this study has pulled together. If you go to the publication however, you’re in for a shock, it’s behind a paywall of the type Rupert Murdoch would kill for. To have access to this paper for just 24 hours you would be expected to pay $32.00 (US Dollars – about £20 0r so). This is a totally unacceptable situation and it’s not confined to this study, academic papers are often kept away from public gaze by this unbelievable restriction.

Over the years this blog has referred to the findings of many papers which have been directly relevant to he debate about cannabis and its legal status, some have even been commissioned by our government with the intention of using the findings to justify new laws. It’s important therefore for us to be able to point you, the reader, at the source of the claim we’re making so you can read it for yourself. But it  just isn’t possible when publishing houses like this are allowed to operate such ridiculous pay walls. How is it possible to justify charging over £20 a day to read a study produced by a British university which we almost certainly paid for in the first place?

There was an interesting opinion piece from George Monbiot in the Guardian back in August which makes the point very clearly. In the item “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist” (here) George Monbiot explains how the whole stitch-up works

The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I’ve seen, Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930.

and

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.

It’s a true stitch-up which only serves to keep knowledge secret. Reform of the acedemic publishing system is long overdue; this is our knowledge, we have paid for the research to be done, we should have access to the results.

To return to David Nutt’s paper, he has written a blog about it “Popular intoxicants – how do alcohol and cannabis compare?” which you can read (for free) here. It starts of with the sort of dodgy English scientists are perhaps well known for

I am often asked the question “if cannabis was as freely available as alcohol how many would use it and would its harms increase?.  Of course the answer is yes to both.

What he means of course is “if cannabis was as freely available as alcohol would more people use it?”

Now of course because we can’t read the paper David is talking about here we can’t check to see if he has made any allowance in his assessment of the harms caused by cannabis and alcohol for the role of the law – in terms of controlling and regulating the alcohol trade and of gifting the cannabis trade to organised crime without any regulation for example. For any serious comparison of the harms of the two drugs it’s only reasonable to expect them to be compared under the same legal regime, but it is highly unlikely David Nutt compared prohibition moonshine with today’s home produced hydro weed and if he didn’t, his results will be heavily skewed in favour of overplaying the potential for harm from cannabis when compared to alcohol.

Even so, the study concludes what we all know; alcohol is more dangerous than cannabis is. In fact it makes the claim that

Taken together we estimate that alcohol is at least twice as harmful to users than cannabis and 5 times more harmful to society.

Quite how he comes to that assessment isn’t clear, but might be if we could read the paper. But given that alcohol does directly lead to death in some users – directly through overdose – and cannabis does  not, “twice as dangerous” would seem something of an under estimate.

However as to his conclusion:

The obvious conclusion is that the current legislation criminalising cannabis users is illogical as well as inhumane and may be causing much more harm than it does good.

There’s not much to disagree with.

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