I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Walker for raising an issue that is not only important, but seems to be attracting more attention in recent years. It was a pleasure to meet him and representatives of Cannabis Skunk Support, Mary Brett and Jeremy Edwards. In part, this greater attention is down to my hon. Friend’s work and that of the all-party groups on cannabis and children and on mental health.
I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend because although he is always passionate, his passion for this issue shone through in his eloquent and, at times, moving speech. This issue affects us all. We have been young ourselves and he was very open about his personal experience. Many of us are parents and our children are growing up in an increasingly complicated world, and the problem cannot be ignored.
Cannabis is the most commonly used drug in England today, and its use is particularly common among younger people. One of the big problems is that of perception. Many people see cannabis as benign, harmless, a throwback to the ’60s—I am showing my age—’70s or ’80s, or a source of artistic inspiration, particularly when compared with other, harder drugs. That is a very dangerous misconception these days. For a start, when people talk about the cannabis smoked 50 years ago, they are referring to something very different from that which we see on the streets today.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the most common form of cannabis used today is skunk, which is, on average, about four times stronger than herbal cannabis, the type with which some in this House might be familiar. It does not take a leap of faith to understand that regularly using cannabis of this strength could be very harmful indeed. It could result in dependence, for example, or in the development of serious mental health side effects. Those can be both short and long term, and can be devastating for anyone, including children and young people, causing a host of problems, including family breakdown and debt, and the sort of tragic stories that we heard about from my hon. Friend.
Questions still do exist about just how strong the link is between cannabis use and mental health problems, but there is without doubt a link—that much is certain. Using cannabis can lead to serious problems, such as psychotic episodes and other mental health issues. In the case of young people, whose brains are still growing and developing, that is a particular cause for concern. Any damage caused then could affect them for the rest of their lives. The fact is that the best way to prevent damage like that is to avoid cannabis in the first place, but we are not stupid and we know that many people, both young and old, will be put in situations where cannabis is offered to them, so we need to take some very clear action.
The drug strategy that we published in December 2010 outlined action that we will take to prevent and reduce the demand for drugs, by establishing a “whole life” approach to the problem. That involves breaking the intergenerational paths to dependency by supporting vulnerable families; providing good quality education and advice so that young people and their parents are provided with credible information actively to resist substance misuse; and, of course, intervening early with young people and young adults. My hon. Friend mentioned the need to educate the educators, and it is important that those giving support get continued support in their work.
The latest data show that almost 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds reported taking cannabis in the past year. Although that is a long-term decrease, it is still too many. Those data show us two things: that the situation is improving and that drug use is by no means normal behaviour among young people. That is an important fact for young people to take on board. The Department for Education is taking action to maintain that decline. A review is going on into personal, social, health and economic education, which includes drug education, to determine how schools can be better supported. Of course, schools are not the only setting in which we can undertake this sort of educational programme. I will also be meeting the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend Sarah Teather to discuss these issues soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne also mentioned FRANK. Our drug strategy highlights the important role that FRANK has to play in providing information and advice, both to young people and to their parents or guardians. A review of how FRANK is used showed that the vast majority of young people preferred accessing FRANK online. Based on that review, as I recently discussed with my hon. Friend, we are in the process of improving the FRANK service, making it easier to use the website. We are also updating the tone and style of its language, so that it is more relevant to young people and provides them with the information and advice they need in a way that is accessible and provides clear messages.
We are also taking other steps to help people who already have a problem. In March, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence produced guidance on the assessment and management of people with psychosis and co-existing substance misuse. It will help providers and commissioners to ensure that services are appropriate for young people with psychosis and substance misuse problems. We recently published a mental health strategy to improve services for those who are affected by mental health problems. The strategy focuses on the importance of improving the quality and productivity of services and on making efficiency savings that can be reinvested back into the service to improve it still further.
Over the next five years, we will be putting around £400 million into psychological therapies in all parts of England for young people who are dependent on drugs. Those therapies will include talking therapies, supported where appropriate by family interventions. This issue affects not only individuals but whole families. The strategy will also address issues such as mental ill health and homelessness. Currently, 24,000 young people access specialist support for drug or alcohol misuse and the figures are good—97% of them are seen within three weeks of referral. However, we have to ensure that the quality of support stays high, so that every young person who needs help is given what they need. We will continue to improve the quality of that support and to make sure that it responds to the right people at the right time.
The letters my hon. Friend read out were moving and evocative. They demonstrate the human story behind this problem. Child and adolescent mental health services have a part to play, but we need to do a great deal more. We need to get the prevention right and we need to get support in when those preventive measures have not helped. He talked about moving from harm reduction to harm prevention and I could not agree more. We need to ensure that young people grow up with the skills they need to make what are sometimes difficult decisions about the choices they face. Addressing legalisation is not enough; we all know about the legal highs. What we need is for young people to make good decisions about the choices they face. I commend my hon. Friend and those who have written to him on sharing those experiences with us today.
Our position on cannabis use is clear: we will continue to focus on young people because if they are protected right from the start, they will be safer throughout their lives. Not only will their mental health be safeguarded, but their exam results and social development will benefit, their future options will remain open and their chances will remain bright. It is terrible to hear about young people who are struck down by poor decisions that are often made through ignorance. I am sure that position is shared by my hon. Friend and all hon. Members present. Let me assure him that his call for action is being answered in full. I was pleased to hear his complimentary remarks about me so far—I noticed the slight equivocation—and I assure him that I do not think he will be disappointed in the future. I will do all I can in my position to ensure that we do everything possible to protect the health of young people.
Question put and agreed to.