Cannabis downgrade sees health toll double
The number of patients receiving Health Service treatment for cannabis misuse doubled in the three years after Labour relaxed laws against the drug.
Among children the number of cases leapt by a third.
It means that every day no fewer than 33 children and teenagers and 39 adults begin NHS treatment for the effects of cannabis on their mental health, or to help them beat their dependence.
Treatment can range from counselling or support classes through to intensive residential rehabilitation or treatment within secure units for drug-induced mental illness such as schizophrenia.
Critics blame the sharp rise on former home secretary David Blunkett's controversial decision to reclassify cannabis from a class B to a class C drug in January 2004.
The policy effectively stopped police from arresting users for possession. Although maximum penalties for dealing in cannabis were toughened, reclassification led to a widespread perception among young people that the drug had been legalised.
With higher-strength 'skunk' varieties increasingly dominating the drug trade, opponents warned that relaxing the law created a mental health timebomb among teenagers and young adults.
The decision was finally reversed earlier this year, but critics of Mr Blunkett's approach have long argued that 'once the genie was out of the bottle' it would be very hard to reverse the damage.
The latest figures, revealed in a Parliamentary written answer, show the number of patients receiving treatment for cannabis-related conditions soared from 13,408 in 2004/05, the first year of the new regime, to 26,287 three years later.
Almost half of those patients were under 18. Between 2005 - the first year figures are available - and 2007 the figure for under-18s rose by a third from 9,043 to 12,021.
A separate Parliamentary answer reveals that every day two people are admitted to psychiatric units for mental health problems associated with cannabis.
In 2007/08, 579 people entered wards for this reason, 99 of them teenagers - up from 417 adults and 74 teenagers in the year Labour came to power.
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: 'These figures highlight a massive public health concern. The Government must take this disturbing trend very seriously.
'While evidence suggests that fewer young people are smoking cannabis, these figures show the enormous potential problems for heavy users and emphasise concerns over the increasing strength of cannabis.
'Ministers must stop using drugs classification as a political football. Their focus should be on making sure people are getting the message about the potential consequences both in terms of addiction and mental health problems.'
Mary Brett of Europe Against Drugs said: 'To see treatment numbers doubling in such a short time is dreadful, but sadly not surprising. When you relax penal policy against a drug like this, levels of use increase. It's not complicated.
'Ministers consistently claim that overall cannabis use has gone down, but among 11 to 15-year-olds the figures suggest it's rising. Restoring cannabis to Class B is not enough.
'The Home Office's drug advice website Frank still plays down the dangers of cannabis use to mental health. The reality is this drug interferes with brain function.'
Norman Wells of Family and Youth Concern said: 'The Government's decision in 2004 sent out confusing and dangerous messages about the drug's supposed safety, particularly to young people.
'But there are deeper issues to be addressed that can't be solved by the recent reclassification of cannabis. We need to face up to the fact that rising levels of alcohol and drug use among children and young people have gone hand in hand with family disintegration.'
But Harry Shapiro of the charity DrugScope questioned whether the upswing in cannabis treatment was connected to the reclassification, suggesting young people did not base their decision on whether to use a drug on its legal status.
He said: 'Young people often use cannabis to deal with emotional problems at school or at home, using the drug as a way to escape from their problems - rather like the way they use alcohol.
'For anyone with pre-existing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, cannabis can make these problems worse.'
A recent United Nations global study found 44 per cent of Britain's 15 to 16-year- olds have tried cannabis - the highest proportion of any European country.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: 'Evidence suggests use of cannabis amongst young people is declining.
'More young people are getting help for problems with all drugs, including cannabis.
'Thanks to record investment, specialist substance misuse services have expanded greatly and now if a young person needs support, they are now much more likely to get it.'
By Daniel Martin and Mathew Hickley
14th April 2009