It's a real public health concern that drug consumption is largely blind, with prohibition meaning that consumers don't know compounds or potency

Rob Wilson, CEO

It is remarkable that in the UK today most people have no idea what is in the illicit drugs they take.  At one level, it is odd that people do not seem to care more about what they are putting into their body – after all there is a level of personal responsibility in all this. But it is also true that with drugs being illegal, it is not easy to find ways of verifying the content even if you wished to.

According to our Public Attitudes to Drugs in the UK 2019 report out today, most people end up using cannabis completely blindfolded.  Many are young people and it is akin to them going into a bar and randomly selecting a drink from a bottle with no label. The majority of cannabis users have no knowledge of the strains they’re consuming and the impact on them of the varying proportions of the compounds.  It’s dangerous not to know or understand exactly what you are ingesting with food, let along illicitly supplied drugs – where levels of concern for welfare of customers is limited.

The research found a real lack of education and awareness regarding two of the key components in cannabis, THC and CBD, and their effects. Different strains of cannabis contain varying levels of THC, CBD and other compounds, and these levels considerably impact the effect of cannabis when consumed. Yet 42% said that they didn’t know that THC is the key component that causes a ‘high’, while 55% didn’t know that cannabis with high THC and low levels of CBD seem to be more addictive and have worse effects on memory.

What happens with the purchasing of cannabis is also likely to happen with other drugs. So it is of deep concern that 60% of people said that they rarely or never had the option of choosing from different strains;  58% didn’t know the name of the strain they were using; 71% couldn’t approximate the ratio of THC and CBD in the cannabis they were cannabis and; 25% said that they would prefer to use less potent cannabis than that currently available to them.

This is a significant public health issue, particularly in light of the connections made between cannabis and mental health issues in young people. Unfortunately, the Government approach to this difficult issue hasn’t changed in decades. Legalisation, decriminalisation, regulation are off the agenda. Yet the research found that eight out of ten people in the UK (79%) think that Government has not dealt well with the country’s drug problems. More than half (53%) feel that drug use is best seen as a health issue and should be dealt with by healthcare professionals focused on reducing harms rather than criminalising users.  Most of the British public (76%) think the threat of criminal punishment is not effective at deterring individuals from using drugs.

Some people are getting sick and in extreme cases people die from drug misuse.  Indeed, we have records numbers of deaths in England, Wales and Scotland, at a time when over a third (35%) admit to having used an illegal substance at some point. This means effectively a third of the British public are involved or have been involved with illicit drugs and therefore criminal activity.  It is an eye-opener and should make us all pause for thought.

The public wants to find better ways of dealing with the illicit drug epidemic that the country is facing. Records levels of heroin and cocaine, record numbers of people dying, record numbers of profits for criminal gangs. It is time to have an open debate, to rethink policy, to look at how we do things better. We have to protect, educate and support our young people in particular much better.  It is time for Government to take a much more proactive approach in looking for better solutions to these seemingly intractable problems. Only then will things get better for families and communities.