Doctors concerned about cannabis risks

Incorrectly perceived as a harmless drug
  • Deborah Condon

Addiction treatment centres and psychiatric hospitals have recorded a big increase in the number of cannabis-related cases, and yet the Government is ‘sleepwalking' towards legalising the drug for medicinal purposes without considering the harms associated with it, senior doctors have claimed.

A group of 20 senior doctors, including specialists in the fields of psychiatry and addiction services, as well as GPs and Emergency Department consultants, have voiced major concerns about an increasingly relaxed attitude towards cannabis by legislators, the media and commentators.

The Cannabis Risk Alliance has said that these relaxed attitudes are gaining ground despite the fact that new research has shown that cannabis is now the most common illegal drug involved in new treatment episodes in psychiatric hospitals and addiction treatment centres nationwide.

"Cannabis is increasingly perceived to be a harmless drug, whereas in reality it is the main drug causing new addiction-related and psychiatric cases presenting in Ireland today. We are gravely concerned that the Government is ploughing ahead without objectively considering the full effects of cannabis or even properly communicating the risks posed by the drug to society at large," commented psychiatrist, Dr Bobby Smyth, of Trinity College Dublin.

Speaking on behalf of the alliance, he said that it was their belief that global multinationals are influencing the Government's response to an issue that deserves much more scrutiny.

"The Government is sleepwalking into supporting the use of so-called ‘medicinal' cannabis while ignoring the extensive evidence of its harms. This gives the perception that the drug is harmless and gives the wrong message to young people," Dr Smyth noted.

He called on the Government to begin ‘an urgent and unbiased examination' of the evidence of escalating cannabis use and cannabis-related harms in Ireland. He also called for a public education campaign ‘to counter the pro-cannabis propaganda which has gone unchallenged for the past eight years'.

Also speaking about the issue, GP and former president of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), Dr Ray Walley, noted that he has seen a big increase in the number of people presenting with cannabis-related problems.

"The number has shot up in recent years. This is destroying families and the Government needs to properly investigate the harm this drug can cause before blindly introducing legislation that will have a huge effect on society.

"Cannabis has changed fundamentally in the past 20 years. Modern cannabis, known as ‘weed', is vastly stronger than the hash which was used in the past. Cannabis has never been more dangerous than it is now," Dr Walley commented.

Meanwhile, according to Prof Mary Cannon of the department of psychiatry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, cannabis use is linked with an increased risk of psychosis, suicidal behaviours and other mental health issues.

"These risks have been consistently shown in large international studies. The evidence for the harms associated with cannabis use is much, much stronger than any evidence for its use as a ‘medicine' and the risks for mental health are highest among young people who use high-potency cannabis.

"It seems contradictory that the Government has a policy promoting suicide prevention and improving mental health services for young people and yet is considering loosening controls on a substance which causes serious mental health harms among vulnerable young people," Prof Cannon said.

The alliance pointed out that while there is preliminary evidence which suggests that some products containing cannabinoids have medical benefits in a very limited number of conditions, this had been ‘distorted to imply that the cannabis plant in its entirety could be considered as a medicine'.

"The health benefits of cannabis have been grossly overstated and in our view are comprehensively outweighed by its negative effects. We have seen from countries abroad that medicinal legislation has been an effective ‘Trojan horse' for full legalisation and commercialisation," Dr Smyth added.

The doctors outlined their position in a letter to the Irish Times newspaper.


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