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British teenagers use so much cannabis that market is saturated, says EU report

Alan Travis in Strasbourg

Cannabis use among teenagers in the UK has begun to stabilise, but only because it is so widespread the market has become saturated, the European Union's drug agency warned yesterday. The EU monitoring centre on drugs and drug abuse also warned of new public health dangers from the increasing potency of cannabis available in Britain. It raised concerns about the long-term health implications of the emergence of a significant new group of teenage boys who are using cannabis intensively - more than 20 times a month.

Its annual report, published yesterday, says the official goal of reducing drug consumption by 2006 across Europe remains a long way off, with at least one in five adults in the EU having tried cannabis and an emerging problem of growing cocaine use in some cities, particularly in Britain.

The agency warns that the drug-related death toll continues to rise - there are between 7,000 and 9,000 deaths every year in the EU.

It says that glue-sniffing and other forms of solvent abuse have proved a much greater acute health risk for young people in the UK than ecstasy, which causes fewer but more highly publicised deaths .

It says that there were 1,700 deaths from solvent abuse in the UK between 1983 and 2000, with most of the victims aged 16 to 19 - far more than the "relatively rare" ecstasy deaths.

The authors say that recent government measures have been effective in sharply reducing solvent-abuse deaths in Britain over the last four years.

Solvents remain the third most commonly used drug after cannabis and alcohol, with 15% of 15 and 16-year-olds trying them at some time.

The EU says that ecstasy use was high in 1995 in the UK, Italy and Ireland but has recently seen some decline. It suggests that the high-profile negative media coverage has been a factor.

The report also confirms the more liberal approach of many governments to drug policy, with harm-reduction measures such as needle exchanges, drug consumption rooms, methadone treatment, heroin prescribing and pill testing becoming an established part of health policy in Holland, Germany and Spain.

However, it shows that the UK is lagging behind other European countries in providing treatment places for hardcore drug abusers.

But while Switzerland is about to become the first country to legalise cannabis possession, the eastern European states which are to join the EU next May have been busy outlawing it for the first time.

Georges Estievenart, director of the agency, said there were some grounds for cautious optimism about the drug situation in Europe, such as the adoption of a drug strategy by most national governments.

But he added that this was outweighed by the fact that the overall drug use trend re mained upward and there was "insufficient impact on regular drug use by a worrying number of young people in EU countries".

The report says that cannabis remains the illicit drug most frequently used by young people across Europe. The UK has one of the highest usage levels in Europe, with 42% of all 15 to 34-year-olds saying they had tried it at least once - second only to Denmark.

The price of cannabis resin has been stable across the rest of Europe but has fallen sharply in the past four years in Britain, possibly as a result of the rapid rise in homegrown marijuana production, which has been estimated at 50% of the market. Hashish, which is nearly all imported from Morocco, is cheapest in Britain at 2.3 (1.60) a gram, and most expensive in Norway at 26.6.

"Europe remains the world's biggest market for cannabis resin (hashish), accounting for some three-quarters of global seizures. Herbal cannabis or marijuana grown in the EU is also becoming increasingly available.

"Evidence indicates that the average potency of cannabis in the EU has risen and now ranges from around 5-10% for both resin and herbal varieties, but some samples are considerably stronger with a THC [the active ingredient] content of up to 30%. This raises public health concerns."

A decade ago the THC content of most cannabis was about 1% to 2%.

But the EU's drugs agency is also worried about the emergence of a new generation of teenage boys who are starting to use cannabis at a younger age, instead of sniffing glue. They are using it more intensively - more than 20 times a month - and persist with it perhaps until their early 20s. It says this pattern of use is often mixed with binge drinking.

The report for the first time looks at the drug situation in eastern Europe and warns that some countries, including Estonia and Latvia, will be facing "the most rapidly developing HIV epidemic in the world" unless syringe and needle exchange programmes are adopted to tackle the problem.

Source: The Guardian
Date: 23 October, 2003

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