How ideology shapes the evidence and the policy: what do we know about cannabis use and what should we do?


Matthew Hickman, Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Canynge Hall, Whatley Road, Bristol B58 2PS, UK.


In the United Kingdom, as in many places, cannabis use is considered substantially within a criminal justice rather than a public health paradigm with prevention policy embodied in the Misuse of Drugs Act. In 2002 the maximum custodial sentence tariff for cannabis possession under the Act was reduced from 5 to 2 years. Vigorous and vociferous public debate followed this decision, centred principally on the question of whether cannabis use caused schizophrenia. It was suggested that new and compelling evidence supporting this hypothesis had emerged since the re-classification decision was made, meaning that the decision should be reconsidered. The re-classification decision was reversed in 2008. We consider whether the strength of evidence on the psychological harms of cannabis has changed substantially and discuss the factors that may have influenced recent public discourse and policy decisions. We also consider evidence for other harms of cannabis use and public health implications of preventing cannabis use. We conclude that the strongest evidence of a possible causal relation between cannabis use and schizophrenia emerged more than 20 years ago and that the strength of more recent evidence may have been overstated—for a number of possible reasons. We also conclude that cannabis use is almost certainly harmful, mainly because of its intimate relation to tobacco use. The most rational policy on cannabis from a public health perspective would seem to be one able to achieve the benefit of reduced use in the population while minimizing social and other costs of the policy itself. Prohibition, whatever the sentence tariff associated with it, seems unlikely to fulfil these criteria.