Young people find it easier to buy cannabis than alcohol, according to a report by drugs policy think tank Volte Face.
The Children’s Report found that 44% of young cannabis users said it was "very easy" to buy, as opposed to 22% who said the same about alcohol.
According to this new research, the number of young cannabis users admitted to hospital with mental health problems increased by 54% over five years because of high-strength strains and inadequate education.
The report argues that public policy has led to these negative health outcomes and the criminalisation of a large number of young people.
talkRADIO spoke to Dan (not his real name), who started smoking cannabis aged 14, about how easy it really was to get hold of the drug.
'It is an attractive thing to a young person'
“I started smoking through a friend,” says Dan, who first tried cannabis aged 14. “He just started smoking pretty inconsistently at first and then once asking me to try it. It is quite an attractive thing to a young person because it has quite a lot of status,when you are that age to do something a bit illegal. So I was like ‘I’ll give it a try’ and really liked it.”
The Children's Report found 66% of young people who had tried cannabis had bought it aged 15 or under, compared to 20.5% of those who had tried alcohol and bought it aged 15 or under.
Dan said this “attractive” habit quickly snowballed out of control, partly because of the lack of short term side effects he felt.
'No real side effects'
“It started with smoking for the first time, and then very quickly what you notice about weed which makes it attractive is that there is no real comedown, there is no hangover, there is no real side effects to it.
“At least, there are no visible ones. You could feasibly smoke constantly and you would not feel like you had a hangover or headache the next day. It was instantly a thing that I could do whenever I had free time with my friends and that is pretty much how it escalated because we would do it most weekends. Then, I started smoking weed on my own and then, I started smoking every single day.”
He added: "There are plenty of people who start younger because it is easier to buy than anything else. It is pretty much available from the second day of term.”
'I had never been drunk'
A cannabis smoker pictured in London in February, during a rally in favour of the legalisation of medicinal cannabis. The people pictured are not associated with the interviewee. Image: Getty
“Alcohol wasn’t even something I could get if I wanted to," Dan says. The only way I could get alcohol was if I asked one of my mates to steal some from their house or if I stole some from my house.
“I’d say most people had the same experience, that it is far easier to buy weed or any drugs than it is to buy alcohol, especially under age. The first time I smoked weed I had never been drunk. I smoked weed for a year or so before I ever actually got drunk just because I couldn’t get alcohol but I could get weed.
In Dan’s experience, this easy access comes from “word of mouth” but also from social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat.
Drug dealers on Instagram
The Children’s Report found social networks “have widened the reach of drug dealers and increased the number of contacts available to young people”.
“Most teenagers have drug dealers numbers on their phones," adds Dan. "Also drug dealers will walk past people asking if they smoke weed and if they say yes they will give them a phone number. Some of them have business cards – legitimately have business cards – or Instagram accounts.
“I was at 420, which is a big weed day on the 20th April every year. People go to Hyde Park in Leeds because that is where I am from, and there were drug dealers walking around passing you business cards with a phone number on it, a cute name and then some of them have Instagram accounts that will link you to photos of the different weed that they have.”
These online accounts have become increasingly accessible, according to research from Mintel, because 78% of parents with children aged between 10 and 15 said their child used a smartphone, up 7% from 2014.
Social media provides 'anonymity' for dealers'
“Drug dealers will be fully aware of the fact that young people are buying off them, but in the case of something like Instagram or Snapchat, the reason they will use it is because it is another barrier of anonymity," Dan explains.
“If someone contacts a drug dealer through Snapchat or Instagram and the messages they receive are a bit suspect, this person might be a police officer or someone dodgy. It is just another sort of barrier between the drug dealer and potentially being caught. It is also another way for people to find them and buy through them.
“It's more for as many people as possible to find out what drugs these people are selling, what their prices are and then at the same time, the drug dealer isn’t really at any risk because if the police figure out that this Instagram account is selling they can’t link it to anything because it is an anonymous page.”
Young people don't see smoking as a 'crime'
Dan feels that this easy access to cannabis means young people don’t even see smoking it “as a crime”.
“They don’t even see it as something as illegal. It is practically treated like it isn’t by the police already. Most people have this perception that the police couldn’t care less about people smoking weed.
“Because of that, when they do get caught and get punished, they will have a lot of weed on them and a lot of the time they are a victim of circumstance. They were just someone who likes to smoke weed and then very quickly got drawn into selling it or just even more so than that, people get into drug debts.”
In the past five years, convictions of young people supplying cannabis in England and Wales have risen by 26%. In contrast, adult convictions have only increased by 1%, with persecutions falling by 16%.
Dan feels this will not change until the laws around cannabis change, saying: “There is no way of knowing if the weed is real or has got these deadly agents in it.
“I am a supporter of making them legal for recreation. If you made it simply medical people would buy it for recreational use - unless you eliminate the black market entirely people will find a way to keep selling it illegally. As long as people still sell it illegally there are always these added risks associated with it.”
Additional reporting by Samantha King