Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is a member of Rother District Council.

I read with concern a report by MPs calling for the legalisation of cannabis for ‘medicinal’ use in the UK and to allow ‘sick people’ to grow their own cannabis under licence. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform is asking for companies to be allowed to import or grow cannabis and minimise legal regulations. The argument is that the continued ban on cannabis is ‘irrational’ as ‘cannabis works as a medicine for a number of medical conditions.’ There have been suggestions that children should have access to ‘medical marijuana’. I also read with interest about a 100 per cent increase in teenagers misusing cannabis in Portugal since it was decriminalised for personal use.

I do wonder whether proponents of legalising cannabis have ever witnessed the reality of what they espouse. Whilst there is not enough data on the effects of cannabis on a child’s brain development, ‘cannabis carries significant mental health risks for some individuals. Its use increases the risk of developing psychosis, depression and anxiety’ (Professor Colin Drummond).

In my ‘other life’ as a local Magistrate in both the Adult Criminal and Family Proceedings Courts, I have seen Professor Drummond’s analysis first hand. For the last 18 months, I have noted a worrying pattern of far too many young men in their mid-twenties suffering from mental health issues. All of them are taking anti-psychotic or anti-depressant medication. And most of them had progressed to heroin/cocaine addiction.

In the Adult Criminal Court, where a defendant demonstrates or has a diagnosis of a mental health condition, or has a current heroin/cocaine addiction, it has become a habit of mine to look at a defendant’s PNC (Police National Computer check showing cautions, warnings, reprimands and previous convictions) for cannabis possession in the past. It has become no surprise to indeed see such a caution/warning/conviction. In the Family Proceedings Court, in Public Law matters, the misuse of drugs and serious mental health issues are often driving forces in removing a child from the care of it’s parent(s) because of the impact these dysfunctions have on a parent’s ability to look after his/her child.

In Private Law matters I have noted an alarming number of young fathers (in particular) with a mental health diagnosis seeking contact with their children. Again, it has come as no surprise to me to find out that too many of these fathers smoked cannabis in their teens. The resulting chaotic and inconsistent lifestyle has a negative impact on such a parent’s ability not only to adequately care for their child, but also to have a fulfilling relationship with their child. And their children suffer.

The likes of Nick Clegg and George Soros should spend a day in their local Magistrates’ Court. It is not the proponents of legalisation who deal with the short and long term effects of cannabis misuse, but local communities and local authorities who are left to pick up the pieces.

As part of their public health remit, local authorities are responsible for commissioning alcohol and drug interventions and services. Levels of drug taking in the Southeast are the third highest in England and Wales. The financial cost of problem drug use in the south east is estimated at approximately £1.8 billion per annum – which includes the costs of healthcare and crime, but does not include the costs of ‘looked after children’ which are borne by the local county councils.

Take East Sussex County Council, for example. Out of a total budget of £778.8 million for 2016/17, £5.2 million is spent on drug and alcohol support and a further £0.6 million on substance misuse support, £9.7 million on mental health support and £128.8 million is spent on Children’s Services.

One of the key findings from the 2014/15 Crime Survey shows that younger people (16 – 24) are more likely to take drugs, accounting for approximately 40 per cent of drug users – with cannabis being the drug most frequently used. The age bracket 25 – 34 contains the highest number of hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of drug related mental health and behavioural disorders. East Sussex has the third highest such admission rate in the Southeast – it is not too far fetched to join the dots.

Parental substance abuse is recognised as a risk factor for child neglect and abuse. It is well known that children with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to become ‘looked after children’ and are more likely to stay in long term foster care.

The relatively new Family Drug and Alcohol Court, which has now been rolled out in East Sussex, provides a problem-solving, therapeutic approach to Public Law (care) cases where parental substance misuse is the key reason in a local authority’s decision to bring care proceedings. The FDAC aims to address the underlying problems, working with all the relevant agencies, to prevent children going into care. FDAC works, but not enough local families are able to benefit from this initiative as funding is an ongoing issue. It is clear, however, that the long term economic (and humanitarian) outcomes far outstrip short term expense.

Drug related crime is cited as being a ‘complex’ issue, but evidence indicates that drug users are responsible for a large percentage of acquisitive crime (theft, burglary, robbery). The economic cost of drug related crime in England and Wales is estimated to be around £14 billion per annum.

The aim of sentencing a known drug addict is to reduce drug use and re-offending. Community sentences with drug/alcohol rehabilitation requirements have some success – but not enough. Prison drug treatment is known to lack positive outcomes. About 64 per cent of new prisoners have a history of drug abuse and have reported to having used drugs in the four weeks prior to conviction.

Re-conviction rates are more than double for these prisoners than for those who have never used drugs (Prison Reform Trust: Bromley Briefings Summer 2016). Drug related crime impacts on our communities – not only in terms of criminal behaviour, family breakdown and healthcare, but also in terms of tourism and economic regeneration. In more deprived areas such as Hastings, where drug addiction is known to be more prevalent, rather than prison for prolific drug fuelled offenders, surely there is a necessity for local secure drug rehabilitation units, where support and enforcement can work together.

The number of drug addicts is relatively small, but the costs associated, both economic and humanitarian, are high. Drug addiction causes criminal behaviour, family breakdown, homelessness and healthcare needs – all of which, socially and economically, negatively impact on our local communities. Rather than legalising cannabis use, we need to look at better ways of working together across all agencies to ensure support and enforcement runs hand in hand to make our communities safer, cut reoffending and prevent family breakdown.

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