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Will the legalisation of marijuana help or hinder addiction?

On November 1, 2018, medical marijuana became legal and available to patients in the UK on NHS prescriptions. Medical marijuana is the whole, unprocessed marijuana plant or its basic extracts. This substance can, and has been, used to treat symptoms of illness and other conditions.

The legalisation of medical cannabis in the UK came about and was highlighted after the particularly high-profile cases. These instances involved two young boys who suffered with epilepsy being denied cannabis oil to aid the control of their seizures.

Interestingly, though, when the Daily Mail published a report into the issue on February 18, 2019, medical cannabis had only been prescribed six times in the UK. According to Mike Barnes, honorary professor of neurological rehabilitation at Newcastle University, none of the six prescriptions were on the NHS – all were private.

Mr Barnes told the Daily Mail: “The legislation has had no impact on the health of people due to the lack of education of the medical community and overcautious guidelines produced by the Royal College of Physicians and the British Paediatric Neurology Association.”

So what does this mean for addiction? The natural worry when this law came to pass was that people with cannabis addictions would exploit the NHS system in the UK to gain access to medical marijuana. But with doctors supposedly withholding medical cannabis prescriptions on the NHS, the worry now lies with companies such as the United Patients Alliance. The political director of the company, Jon Liebling told the Daily Mail that by not prescribing medical cannabis, doctors are making patients vulnerable to what he called ‘the criminal market’.

To attempt to understand whether legalisation helps, hinders or in fact has no bearing at all on addiction, it’s useful to understand the problems associated with cannabis and also to look at the issue globally.

The problem with cannabis

One of the major difficulties with cannabis addiction is that the dangers have long been played down with deep-rooted ideologies for the supposed ‘non-addictive’ qualities. In fact, smoking cannabis over a period of time leads to dependency. There are psychological, physical and also social signs and symptoms of cannabis addiction. These include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Lung irritation
  • Accelerated heartbeat
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia

Research suggests that cannabis can have a negative effect on the chemical in the brain linked to learning and memory – dopamine. Further highlighting the dangers of cannabis, the study even found the effects of the drug were similar to those produced by cocaine and heroin.

Where is cannabis legal?

Cannabis use is totally legal in Canada and Uruguay, while Spain and Portugal have a more relaxed attitude, as do Switzerland and Norway.

It’s not completely legal in the Netherlands but if you ever make a trip to the country, you’ll notice many people smoking marijuana in coffee shops as this is allowed.

Medical cannabis is legal in a number of countries in some form or another. These countries include Australia, Mexico, France, and almost 40 states in the USA.

Countries with the biggest drug problems

If we take into account where cannabis is legal for both recreational and medicinal purposes, it’s easier to look at the possibility of a connection between legalisation and addiction.

To help with this comparison, addictionblog.org has put together the top 11 countries across the world with the biggest drug problems.

Interestingly, some of the countries with the harshest drug laws have big problems with substance abuse. For instance, Iran and America famously have tough drug laws, and yet they make it into this list – Iran even tops it:

  1. Iran
  2. UK
  3. France
  4. Slovakia
  5. Russia
  6. Afghanistan
  7. USA
  8. Brazil
  9. Mexico
  10. Canada
  11. Australia

You’ll notice that many of the countries that have legalised cannabis either for recreational or medicinal use make the list, too. Canada, where cannabis use is completely legal and the UK, France, Mexico and Australia, where medical cannabis is legal in some form all feature.

Is this because people in these countries have easier access to the drug due to the supply of medical marijuana, or, like the UK, are GPs across the world reluctant to prescribe it, forcing people to look elsewhere?

Either way, we can see that there is a global substance abuse problem. Whether a country has harsh drug laws, or relaxed rules around the use of substances there are still high levels of drug problems in these places.

The reality of the issue of addiction is that people can, and do, become addicted to both legal and illegal substances and processes.

The legalisation of substances adds another dimension to the problem, but ultimately the bearing it has on addiction is minimal. What can be more problematic for addiction, however, is downplaying cannabis as a harmless drug – when, in fact, it has effects similar to those produced by cocaine and heroin on the brain.

We cover more about the side effects or drug abuse and addiction in our drug awareness section.

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from an addiction to cannabis, you can seek help from Port of Call by visiting our website or calling 0808 231 8573.

About the author: Alex Molyneux

Alex is our admissions team leader. Over the last 5 years he has spoken with more than 10,000 people via our helpline and has organised over 1,000 detox and rehabilitation placements.

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