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|Posted: Fri May 04, 2007 4:05 pm Post subject: How dangerous is dope?
|How dangerous is dope?
As the reclassification of cannabis draws near, Joe Muggs investigates its links with mental illness
The inquest last week into the death of Robert Dickinson, who shot dead his neighbour in a dispute over a garden hedge and then committed suicide in prison, heard that he had been "drunk and drugged" and had smoked "up to five cannabis cigarettes a day".
Roll up: cannabis use will no longer be so heavily penalised
The coroner told jurors: "I would want to stress... that cannabis is not a harmless drug and this case demonstrates how devastating its effects can be." Outside the court, Det Insp Peter Bray, of Lincolnshire Police, said: "It does nobody any good to use cannabis and can lead to these sorts of things."
Yet cannabis use is steadily increasing, and the drug will be redefined later this month from a Category B controlled substance (like amphetamines) to Category C (with prescription-only drugs, such as Valium). Many high-profile police officers have campaigned for the relaxation of the law, most notably Brian Paddick, who controversially introduced de facto decriminalisation of cannabis in Brixton last year.
So how does the resurgence of the term "cannabis psychosis" square with the seeming increased acceptance of the drug? Dr Zerrin Atakan of the National Psychosis Unit, who has researched the issue, is cautious about the use of the term:
"Cannabis psychosis is a very vague term. If we ever use the phrase, it is only to describe very short-term effects immediately following smoking, and it certainly doesn't refer to users having a psychotic disorder. People may feel frightened or paranoid, but these feelings pass in a matter of hours or, more rarely, days, and practically never require treatment."
Certainly, many people who have smoked cannabis talk of experiencing these paranoid symptoms. One user recalls:
"When I was smoking all day every day, I would read so much into everything that people said. A friend could say 'Hello' to me and I'd reply: 'What? What do you mean by that?' "
But there are more serious risks. "What we are finding is that people who smoke very strong stuff very regularly from a young age - when their brains are still forming - are, in fact, in danger of triggering problems," says Dr Atakan.
"If you have a genetic predisposition - and you may not be aware of this - then it appears that heavy usage can set off schizophrenic symptoms, for example."
Dr Atakan points to the new varieties of the drug, which are deliberately bred to contain very large amounts of the active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), are grown in this country, and are replacing the more traditional imported varieties of grass and hash on the streets.
He says: "The other main active substance in cannabis is cannabidiol or CBD, which has a calming effect - indeed, there is research being undertaken at the moment into its potential uses as an anti-psychotic. The problem with the new varieties is that they are bred to contain more THC and less CBD, and the amounts are unpredictable."
This means that people who smoke cannabis as a relaxant may buy a new variety and find that its effects are drastically different to those they are used to, and have a very unsettling experience. Research shows that strong cannabis causes a tolerance to build-up in users, and is very habit-forming, which can exacerbate these problems, causing users to buy without discriminating between varieties.
A spokesman for the mental health charity Mind is circumspect, though: "We have no proof at all of a direct link between the immediate disorientation caused by cannabis and violent behaviour. If anything, the average user is unlikely to venture far beyond their front door, if they do over-indulge and suffer from paranoia.
"It's true that people who use a lot of cannabis are statistically more likely to be convicted of violent crime, but there is a very complex web of factors at work here. These tend to be people caught up in criminal activities, thanks to their contact with the drug world, so they may be violent anyway, or simply more visible to the police. There is, however, absolutely no evidence that cannabis itself causes violent behaviour.
"The direct link between alcohol and violence is proven, and the damage caused as a result is increasing constantly. Even prescription drugs have huge hazards - only recently, the entire new generation of anti-depressants, apart from Prozac, were banned for under-18s, because, like cannabis, they can trigger severe mental illness in later life."
Will the forthcoming recategorisation have any useful effect? Dr Atakan is not convinced: "It's a fudge, it won't make any difference at all to who is selling and who is buying the stuff.
"Without education, it is completely useless. Children need to be taught the hazards at an early age, and it needs to be regulated so people know what they are getting. This can only happen through legalisation."