Social Attitudes and Public Perceptions

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1 National Surveys

Surveys of cannabis usage have been produced in many countries. These address frequency of recreational use, distinction of gender or occupation of user, and form of drug abused.

Significant debate in the United Kingdom on abuse of cannabis may be said to have begun a century ago with the exhaustive report in 1894 of the British Indian Hemp Commission. Since then, recreational use of cannabis has become by far the greatest non-medicinal usage of any controlled drug in the UK. Smoking cannabis is recognised as a leisure activity in a significant cross-section of younger people. It seems likely that one third of the population in the 16-29 age range have "tried" cannabis at some time (Ramsay and Percy, 1996), compared with 14% for amphetamine, 9% for lysergide ('LSD') and 6% for MDMA ('Ecstacy'). The same survey contrasted 43% (50% male, 35% female) of that age range who had tried any prohibited drug at some time in their life, with half that proportion (22%) in the 3055 age group. Cannabis was involved in about 80% of the 115,000 drug seizures in 1995, and in most of the 82,000 'possession' offences (Anon, 1996). Of these cases, 52% resulted in a 'caution', in 22% a fine was imposed and 8% a custodial sentence. Using multivariate analysis and constructing regression models, it appears that cannabis use in the 20-29 age band correlates with a white or Afro-Caribbean (but not Asian) male, spending his evenings out in pubs or elsewhere, and frequently unemployed and living alone in poor housing.

In Spain, a national survey in 1980 (Rodriguez and Anglin, 1987) revealed that 20% of the population aged over 12 had tried cannabis "at some time" and 5% "regularly". In a follow-up survey in 1985 the proportions were 21% "at some time" and 12% weekly or more frequently. Between 1974-1984, university users in Barcelona doubled, from 9.6 to 20%; in Oviedo in 1986 (Lopez-Alvarez et al., 1989), 7% had used it in the previous month and 17% in the previous year. An even choice of product was noted in another university survey: in Valencia in 1975, 10% favoured herb and 12% resin.

In Mexico, a twice-yearly survey "Information Requirements System on Drugs" (Ortiz, et al., 1989), reported that of 16-19 year-olds in 1986, 64% had experimented with cannabis and 42% admitted regular use. Only solvent abuse had comparable popularity in this age range; the cannabis users were mostly male and from the lowest socio-economic class.

Gender-based selection was also noted in a study by Pela (1989). He reported that smoking cannabis was an essentially male phenomenon for Nigerian students in the 1960s and 1970s, whereas in the 1980s, perhaps reflecting a changing view of female education, use of cannabis by women was increasing, although taken usually by the oral route, e.g. the herb in soups and the oil in fizzy drinks. Studies of usage in other African countries may be found in Asuni and Pela (1986).

University experience in Central India was researched by Khan and Unnitham (1979). In a self-reporting survey of 4,300 students at 27 colleges in Jabalpur, 6.3% favoured 'bhang' [herb] in food while 2.1% smoked 'ganja' [resin] or charas; former use was admitted by 10.3 and 2.9%.

In contrast, in Malaysia in the 12 years from 1975 to 1986, heroin was by far the most available drug of abuse (80%), with much less cannabis seized, and synthetic drugs were very uncommon. This is not surprising, given the geographical proximity to South East Asian sources, but penalties for trafficking are very severe. Their National Drug Abuse Monitoring System recorded that during this period known addicts rose 11-fold, from 68 to 755 per million inhabitants.

For the same decade in Singapore, seizures of cannabis products and of opiates and opium, in 1975 were 196 and 667 respectively, representing 22% and 74% of all drugs of abuse. In 1986 the corresponding proportions were 790 (26%) and 1891 (61%). Fuller data are given in Dutt and Lee (1991).

2 Substitution of Cannabis Products

Deliberate substitution of alternative drugs of abuse can become a serious social problem. In Italy in 1974 cannabis disappeared from the market and was rapidly replaced by heroin. At about the same time, when police activity in Stockholm caused supplies of stimulants to dry up, heroin began to appear in Sweden (Hartnoll et al., 1989).

In undisclosed substitution, the comminuted herbal material most frequently passedoff as cannabis is henna. Following a (temporary) decline in 1975 in illicit cannabis imports to the UK, there were some large interceptions of 'fake' resin: one of 40 kg wholly comprised compacted hanna (LGC, 1976). Herbal simulations reported at that time included one based on hops, and an ingenious presentation of stinging nettles steeped in cannabis oil, with added bird-seed to give the product verisimilitude. Coffee powder and chopped parsley have also been substituted, and even Datura strammonium (Corrigan, 1979), which no doubt explained Irish reports of atropine poisoning and hallucinations, and similar reports in Great Britain (Ballantyne et al., 1976). Laboratory and field colour tests—see §3.3.3—can distinguish genuine cannabis from simulations (de Faubert Maunder, 1974).

3 Global Seizures

Global patterns reflect the dominance of areas of cannabis trafficking. In Japan in 1985, seizures under the Cannabis Control Act comprised 16.1 kg resin, 104kg herb and 10kg oil (Tamura,1989). The corresponding numbers of persons arrested in connection with these products were 206, 919 and 148 respectively: most were "white-collar" workers and students under severe commercial or academic competitive pressure. This pattern was relatively constant over a 10 year period. The cannabis products were mostly imported from the USA but there was some from local cultivation.

Official laboratory records of analysis of local seizures of drugs of abuse provide similar evidence of global differences. There was a roughly constant proportion of 1:3 for cannabis to opiates in seizures examined by the Singapore Department of Scientific Services: see the summary in Table 5. This pattern is very different from that found in northern Europe. In the Republic of Ireland, reports by the State Chemist for the years 1968-1978 disclose an increase in positive identification of cannabis from just 10 items (ca. 28% of all drugs positively identified) to 525 (82%) in eleven years (Corrigan, 1979). Over the same period, opiates declined proportionately from 63% (23 items, mostly morphine and synthetics) to 9% (57 items) in 1978.

For comparison, import data for England and Wales based on analyses by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, reveal a roughly constant proportion, but rapidly increasing numbers (and weights), of cannabis products from seizures by HM Customs. Positive identifications of cannabis rose from 154 (77% of all Controlled Drug identifications) in 1969, to 2,581 (76%) in 1978, and, by 1987, 3,797 items (76%) amounting altogether to 16 tonnes of cannabis products. There is a similar rising trend in UK domestic (i.e. police) seizures of cannabis in the later period 1985-95: see Table 5.

Put in a global perspective, seizures (in tonnes) for the year 1988, as reported to 'Interpol' (Gough, 1991g) were: Europe 150 (including UK 43), North America 458, Australia and New Zealand 6.9.

Table 5

National analyses of drug seizures: Cannabis products compared with opiates and opium

Table 5

National analyses of drug seizures: Cannabis products compared with opiates and opium



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