Known unknowns - what we should know about cannabis but don't

There are known unknowns - that is to say things we know that we don't know"
(paraphrased quote from Donald Rumsfeld, the failed US Defense Secretary)

What do we know about who uses cannabis?

Probably the best survey of drug users is being done by the Global Drugs Survey - it's a drug research organisation conducting large scale drug user surveys throughout the UK and on the Internet. However, this is no substitute for proper statistical sampling, but it's the best anyone can do at present.

The things we know that we do know

Cannabis is a fact of life, it's here and isn't about to go away. In some areas of the country its use is regarded as the norm and it has long since moved from a drug of subcultures into the mainstream. We need to learn to live with it - prohibition denies reality.

Cannabis isn't a new drug, people have used it for all sorts of reasons for thousands of years.

Since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1973 the use of cannabis has risen from almost nothing to the point where it is now almost the norm, indeed in many areas and amongst many subcultures, it is the norm. There are, even if you believe government figures, millions of users in the UK.

We know that there's a massive and highly profitable industry supplying cannabis to these millions of people. This culture of cannabis use is now ingrained in British life, it is no longer confined to a small group of young hippies but reaches into every corner of society from council estates to members of the royal family.

There is no great social taboo against its use. It is far too accepted for something that is supposed to be a criminal activity.

We know that the law, as a means of controlling and preventing cannabis use, has failed.


Reducing harm and protecting the vulnerable should be the basis of any government regime and that includes drugs policy, yet prohibition puts the most vulnerable at the greatest risk by making the supply as unreliable as possible. It also ensures that no overseeing of those involved in the trade is possible. Because of prohibition disputes are often settled with violence and there is no recourse to the law

There are risks connected with cannabis use - nothing on earth is totally safe. We need to be aware of what the risks are and how to avoid them, simply telling people to "say no" is no substitute for a proper awareness.

Reducing the risks can only be done by quantifying the supply side and by enforcing safeguards to protect the vulnerable.

There are many ways to reduce the risks involved in the use of cannabis, both in terms of the way it is used and the effect it has. But before we can start, we need to know what we are dealing with.

Prohibition is based on increasing the number of things that we know we don't know, that is deliberate harm maximisation.

In truth there should be no such thing as a "known unknown", the concept is stupid. A policy that creates them - indeed actually sets out to create them - is clearly a bad policy. Any such policy that does this and calls the end result "control" is also a deception. That policy is what we have - Prohibition.

The things we know that we don't know about cannabis

Under prohibition we don't know some very fundamental parameters - for example, how strong supplies are. It's as if booze were sold in unlabeled bottles which may contain beer or vodka.

We don't know how pure cannabis is. Is hashish badly contaminated as some claim? How clean is so-called "skunk"? The answer is we don't know. Is some cannabis grown in unregulated grow-ops contaminated with unacceptable levels of pesticides? What is the effect or extent of this contamination? Again, we simply don't know.

We don't really know the profile of the user group - although we know there are millions of cannabis users, we don't know who they are. Because of this we can't study the effects of cannabis use on the individual or collectively on society.

We don't know what's being sold - Cannabis is a complex substance, unlike almost every other "drug" used for fun or escapism it isn't a single substance. Cannabis is a blend of active chemicals, most notably THC and CBD, but also many others. Different types of cannabis contain different ratios of these chemicals and therefore different types may have significantly or subtly different effects. This is of particular importance in the debate surrounding cannabis and mental health where CBD is thought to moderate the psychotic effects of THC.

In 2008 a nationwide research program was started to measure the strength of cannabis being sold, based not on statistically valid sampling but on street seizures by police. Even this crude measure had not been done before.

Prohibition prevents us knowing this fundamentally important information. Because of the drug laws, there can be no statistically valid monitoring of what is actually being sold and hence there can be no reliable predictions of risks.

Worse, a n indication of "success" of the present regime is uncertain supplies and a lowering of quality - in other words an increase in the number of "known unknowns" is the aim of the policy That this is actually government policy is sheer madness.

>a pipe