A mental health crisis caused by super-strength cannabis is being exacerbated by Government policy putting criminalisation ahead of young people’s wellbeing, a new report claims.
The study, by drugs think tank Volteface and researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University and King’s College London, found that high-potency cannabis has become almost ubiquitous on the streets.
At the same time mental health referrals linked to the drug have soared, and police prosecutions for possession have halved in the last 10 years.
The authors say the combination is putting young people’s mental health at risk, and they call for the creation of a tightly controlled legal market in cannabis that would enable the harmful effects of new strains to be managed.
Steve Moore of Volteface told Sky News leaving cannabis to the illicit market had incentivised growers and dealers to develop more potent strains.
“In a regulated market we could provide a range of options, and we could give really clear harm reduction messages,” he said.
“A really good example is how we have alcohol regulation at the moment.
“You have 5%, 13%, 40% alcohol, but you get the choice and the knowledge and the information.
“With cannabis that doesn’t exist at all.
“And because we can’t enforce it, we can’t control it, and the police haven’t got the resources we need to look for other models to make it work.”
Cannabis potency is determined by the relative quantities of two chemicals: the psychoactive agent THC, which causes the cannabis high and is associated with addiction and side effects, and CBD, a protective agent that mitigates against its effects.
In more than 50 samples bought in Manchester and tested by researchers, every one had high levels of THC, around 15-20%, and negligible CBD content, meeting the definition of high-potency street cannabis.
Teenagers told researchers it was easier to obtain than alcohol and cigarettes, while frontline mental health services reported a dramatic increase in referrals from cannabis users.
Mental health problems associated with the drug occur on a spectrum, with anxiety at the lower end and extreme and paranoia drug-induced psychosis, which can be irreversible, at the other.
“At the beginning it was all a bit of fun, but once it becomes a daily habit and you’re looking for it to feel normal it becomes a problem with relationships.
“You take it to feel normal but it makes you abnormal.”
She was eventually struck off as a nurse.
“It came to a point where I was actually diagnosed with a drug-induced, mental health problem which I still have to take medication for today and I probably will for the rest of my life.
“Looking back at it, if I knew anyone tempted to or being offered it, I’d say ‘no don’t touch it’, because it’s the gateway to hell.”
Professor Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said: “I have no doubt that people presenting for cannabis-induced psychosis are the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of people adversely affected by heavy cannabis use.”
The police defended their enforcement policy.
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for cannabis, Commander Simon Bray said: “Police forces are committed to reducing the harms caused by drugs and we would remind people that these substances are controlled because they have been shown to be harmful.
“It is often not possible to know how dangerous a drug will be, or even what it contains – but all drugs can cause significant harm.
“We will continue to work closely with partner agencies and will use our enforcement powers appropriately and robustly, to deal with the impacts of illicit drug crime.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This Government has no plans to legalise cannabis. There is clear scientific and medical evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health, and harms individuals and communities.
“The decriminalisation of cannabis would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery this can cause to families and society.
“It would send the wrong message to the vast majority of people who do not take drugs, especially young and vulnerable people, with the potential grave risk of increased misuse of drugs.”