“If the law supposes that,” said Mr Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass – a idiot… the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience.”
These words written by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist – the story of a boy who becomes a pickpocket with a gang of thieves led by the elderly criminal Fagan – came back to me when writing and researching The Children’s Inquiry.
The latest report from the drugs policy think tank Volteface, which was published this week, delves into the realities of young people and cannabis use as it stands in Britain today and asks: how effectively are the UK’s current policies on the drug safeguarding children from harm? The report concludes that government policy is putting young people’s physical and mental wellbeing at risk and reducing their life chances.
That the consequences of the law are the opposite to the deterrence they are intended to promote reminded me of Mr Bumble’s famous words: “the law is a ass”.
Young people told Volteface that cannabis is easier to come by than alcohol, with dealers advertising their wares on Snapchat and Instagram, all simply one touch of a mobile phone screen away. That much of the cannabis found in today’s black market is of a high strength variety is also concerning, given its links to mental health problems. Volteface found that the number of young people being admitted to hospital for cannabis-related mental health problems in the past five years has increased by 54%.
Significantly, the number of young people being criminalised for supplying cannabis is increasing, at the same time as fewer adults are being brought before the courts and sent to prison for the same crime.
Young people today are increasingly dealing cannabis, either on behalf of an adult who has groomed them to do so or they are selling it themselves to friends. Visible to police on the streets or running deliveries on their bikes, they are facilitated by social media platforms providing convenient connections to drug dealers who can enjoy the fruits of the anonymity this business model brings them.
But why are they doing it? Dealing cannabis is increasingly seen by teenagers as a good way to make money and to get cannabis to smoke for free. It’s also about obtaining status. Legitimate forms of employment, such as stacking shelves in supermarkets, are laughed at for their lack of credibility, and esteem doesn’t seem to stem from academic achievements or career ambitions either. As one interviewee told us, teenagers regard drug dealers with a mixture of fear and admiration.
We argue that dealing cannabis as a young person should be seen as a potential indicator of their vulnerability, not criminality. There must be a shift in perceptions of young people and cannabis, one which does not turn a blind eye to the shifting realities in which they grow up.
As evidence emerges from Canada, which will legalise and regulate cannabis next month, the UK would be wise to see what lessons can be learnt as Prime Minister Trudeau’s approach to changing his country’s cannabis laws has been explicitly centred around protecting young people.
There must be a recognition that the existing approach to this often politically controversial issue in the UK isn’t working.
That our current approach to cannabis is enabling young people to become involved in an illicit drugs market, become dealers, and then be convicted and handed criminal records, is making a mockery of the very principle of law.
Hardeep Matharu is a senior writer and researcher at Volteface, co-author of The Children’s Inquiry and a criminal justice and social affairs journalist.
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