to Wootton Report Index
III CANNABIS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM
In 1956 the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs observed that it was clear
that consumers of cannabis, as of opium, numbered millions in the world, and that
geographically it was the most widespread drug of addiction. 2 Few countries have
published numerical estimates of consumers or consumption, preferring to rely
on such data as the quantities of drug seized and the number of convictions, for
demonstrating the nature of their cannabis "problem". These details
often reflect altered emphasis in enforcement and are not a reliable guide to
scale or trends, without supplementary evidence about what is not being detected.
Our witnesses considered that there had been a gradual growth in cannabis use
in the United kingdom over the past 70 years, and the relevant statistics so far
as they go are consistent with this. The following table shows the numbers of
convictions for cannabis offences and of seizures by H.M. Customs and Excise,
and the amounts seized, in each year since the end of the Second World War:
In the early part of the period most seizures were of green plant tops, found
in ships from Indian and African ports and thought to be destined for petty traffickers
in touch with coloured seamen and entertainers in London docks and clubs. By 1950
illicit traffic in cannabis had been observed in other parts of the country where
there was a coloured population. In 1950, however, police raids on certain London
jazz clubs produced clear evidence that cannabis was being used by the indigenous
population; by 1954 the tendency for the proportion of white to coloured offenders
to increase was well marked, and in 1964 white persons constituted the majority
of cannabis offenders for the first time.
recent trend can be seen from the following figures:
witnesses discounted the significance of immigrant influence on cannabis-use,
and asserted that international movement of young people and new attitudes to
experimentation with mood-altering drugs were the main explanation of increased
cannabis use by white persons in the United Kingdom since 1945.
The Times advertisement on 24th July 1967 claimed that
use of cannabis is increasing, and the rate of increase is accelerating. Cannabis
smoking is widespread in the universities, and the custom has been taken up by
writers, teachers, doctors, businessmen, musicians, artists and priests.... Smoking
the herb also forms a traditional part of the social and religious life of hundreds
and thousands of immigrants to Britain.... Uncounted thousands of frightened persons
have been arbitrarily classified as criminals...."
invited witnesses to estimate the numbers of people who had tried cannabis and
of those who used it regularly. Only guesses were forthcoming and these ranged
between 30,000 and 300,000. We could find no basis for constructing estimates
of our own. It is clear from the convictions recorded that such use of cannabis
as there is, is widely spread throughout the country. Most witnesses felt that
cannabis-use would continue to be popular and to spread for some time yet. As
to speed of growth, we doubt whether the annual doubling of convictions in 1966
and 1967 reflects a corresponding growth in the use of cannabis in that period.
One explanation might be that the formation of drug squads in many police areas
in the past three years has been responsible for more successful police action
against cannabis offenders than previously.
The annual volume of seizures by the Customs has been fairly steady over the past
decade or so. Individual cases have shown that large supplies have been brought
in by highly organised smuggling. According to witnesses, however, there is also
a substantial traffic in small amounts carried by persons returning from holidays
abroad, or sent mainly to immigrants by post from their home countries. Several
witnesses felt that "amateur" smuggling was now becoming more organised,
with a more standardised drug in the illicit market. Lebanon, Pakistan and Cyprus
were mentioned as major sources. It was suggested that hashish now formed some
eighty per cent of the traffic.
Within the United Kingdom, we were told, the competition of the "amateur"
smuggler has made the illicit traffic a very loosely organised and often casual
activity not exploited to any significant extent by professional criminals. We
were informed that the price of cannabis on the illicit market has shown little
fluctuation in recent years beyond what might be expected for varying quality,
and that there has been no shortage of supplies.
All our witnesses were agreed that cannabis-smoking in the United Kingdom was
a social rather than a solitary activity, casual and permissive like the taking
of alcohol. Friend introduced friend; the drug was readily enough available; if
it did not suit the initiate, no one was the loser. The collective impression
was that cannabis "society" was predominantly young and without class
barriers. It resented middle-aged societys judgment on alcohol and cannabis.
It was not politically inclined and our witnesses saw no special significance
in the popularity of cannabis among members of radical movements.
Some witnesses thought that it was possible to distinguish particular social groups
with ill cannabis "society" and mentioned staff and students in universities
and art schools, jazz and pop musicians and entertainers, film makers and artists,
and others engaged in mass media of publicity. They explained this part of the
pattern by the particular appeal of the drug to those interested in creative work
and self expression. But they also mentioned that there were growing numbers of
workers in unskilled occupations who smoked cannabis for pleasure at weekends
as their equivalent to other peoples alcohol. The aspect that some of our
witnesses thought most worthy of note was the broad similarity of attitude to
cannabis and its dangers amongst all these groups.
The "professional" group for example, was described to us as fundamentally
law-abiding; discriminating in the use of cannabis for introspection and elation
as well as for social relaxation; "involved in life", often to the point
of social protest; not much interested in experiments with L.S.D; generally disinclined
to take amphetamines or alcohol (which was regarded as much more damaging than
cannabis); and tending to stop the use of cannabis on marriage, or when the risk
of prosecution was felt to be inimical to career prospects. The "unskilled"
group was said to be similarly industrious and law-abiding and to see nothing
wrong or harmful in its use of cannabis. l
Outside these groups the picture was much more confused and in flux. There were
young people who had failed to adjust to university life or professional training
or regular work. and who had "dropped out; actively discontented and
rebellious teenagers, looking for kicks", who were prepared to
take any drug offered to them: their weaker associates who took cannabis to avoid
rejection by the group; and a few who were severely unstable and sought escape
from their problems in a multiple drug use that included cannabis.
None of our witnesses felt able to estimate the relative sizes of the groups that
they identified. We judged that they considered the responsible law-abiding regular
users to be in the majority. They could tell us little about the use of cannabis
by immigrants and we did not find any clear links between this and cannabis-smoking
by other groups. Proportionately to their numbers there have been more convictions
recorded against immigrants than indigenous United Kingdom nationals and we have
no doubt that a number of those who have recently come to this country from areas
where cannabis-smoking has been traditional have not given up their habit. We
made special enquiry without success in an attempt to discover whether the smoking
habits of immigrants made them particularly vulnerable to enforcement or caused
unusual problems of social adjustment with local communities.
Witnesses knowledgeable about patterns of use told us that although some people
smoked every day without interference to work or social life, the typical user
probably took the drug once or twice a week, aiming at a "high" of 2
or 3 hours. More intensive daily smoking tended to make the user withdraw from
other activity, particularly if he was not in a full-time occupation. Some people
responded badly to the drug and a small number of initiates gave up smoking quickly
because they disliked feelings of nausea or burning in the chest. There was little
bias as between leaves or resin, but most smokers were interested in distinctive
effects and there were individual preferences for material from particular sources.
Experience and the heightened suggestibility due to the drug allowed the regular
smoker to achieve the elation he sought with successively smaller doses. There
was no physical tolerance; and "hangovers", although occasionally severe,
were extremely rare.
We found a large measure of agreement among witnesses about the principal subjective
effects of the drug. Most gave chief emphasis to its relaxing and calming effect.
Several medical witnesses speculated that it had appeared to be beneficial for
young patients during depression and also to have helped ex-addicts to abstain
from heroin. Others contested this. Some suggested that cannabis tended to concentrate
the users attention on his anxieties, aches and pains, without helping him
to resolve them and to induce passivity without removing suffering. Apart from
relaxation, the main sensations looked for were euphoria, tolerance of environment,
and at a more intellectual level heightened awareness of self. Much reference
was made to the varying influence of the circumstances in which the drug was used,
little to altered visual or sensory perception. It was generally agreed that it
was dangerous to drive a motor vehicle under the influence of cannabis not so
much because driving ability was over-estimated (as with alcohol) as because of
possible distortion of perception of depth and perspective.
We were told by more than one medical witness that cannabis-users did not seek
treatment. and, when seen for other reasons, did not feel that treatment was needed
for a cannabis habit. One medical witness mentioned having seen a few cases of
acute psychosis following cannabis-use, but did not feel completely satisfied
that cannabis had been the cause. The same witness was impressed by evidence of
severe disturbance in a sample of chronic cannabis-users. but as this group was
self-selected this information seemed to be of doubtful relevance to the generality
of experience of cannabis-taking. A review carried out by the Ministry of Health
has been reported to us as showing that 82 cases were admitted to hospital in
1966 with the diagnosis of drug addiction where cannabis was mentioned as the
only or one of the drugs concerned. Further data were obtained in 79 of these
cases. In 29 cases further evidence as to the significance of cannabis in leading
to admission to hospital was inconclusive because of inadequate data or the patients
concurrent misuse of other drugs. Of the remaining cases 8 had psychoses or confusional
states. and 9 had other mental symptoms (not psychoses), which appeared to be
attributable primarily to using cannabis. Although other drugs might have been
taken. 20 cases showed evidence of a way of life in which cannabis had played
a significant part in the social deterioration which had led to admission, although
acute symptoms had not been the immediate cause. In this group the concurrent
misuse of other drugs was a significant consideration. In 13 cases cannabis appeared
to be irrelevant as a reason for admission to hospital. Thus in 42 cases the evidence
was inconclusive or irrelevant and in the other 37 other drugs might also have
The moderate use (of hemp drugs) practically produces no ill effects. In all but
the most exceptional cases. injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable.
Indian Hemp Drugs Commission.
the study as a whole it is concluded that marihuana is not a drug of addiction,
comparable to morphine, and that if tolerance is acquired, this is of a very limited
degree. Further more those who have been smoking marihuana for a period of years
showed no mental or physical deterioration Which may be attributed to the drug--New
York Mayors Committee.
Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, Twenty-second Session, Supp.
No. 8 (E/2891), para. 133.
A similar picture of attitudes was found by investigators in Oakland, California
who obtained the confidence of youngsters, mostly Mexicans and Negroes, through
providing them with club amenities without strings. The youngsters were firm in
their conviction, based on their own experience, that the use of such drugs as
marihuana resulted in harmless pleasure and increasing conviviality, did not lead
to violence, madness or addiction, was less harmful than alcohol, and could be
regulated. They cited case after case of individuals known to them who had net
been harmed in health, school achievement, athletics or career as a result of
a habit of smoking marihuana: and they were not themselves interested in being
helped to abstain from the drug. Most had taken up marihuana-smoking from a simple
desire to emulate older boys, and not as reason of emotional disturbance or social
stress. On the contrary the group regarded those who took drugs to excess has
having a weak personality, and marihuana-users generally as making a positive
effort to be in the main stream of organised society and reality