Pubdate: Sun, 02 Nov 2003
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2003
Author: Julie Henry


Britain's most senior coroner is warning that hundreds of young people are 
dying in accidents caused by their prolonged use of cannabis.

Hamish Turner, the president of the Coroners' Society, said that the drug, 
which is often portrayed as harmless, has increasingly been behind deaths 
that have been recorded as accidents or suicides.

In the past year, he estimated that cannabis was a significant contributory 
factor in about 10 per cent of the 100 cases that he had dealt with in 
south Devon, where he works.

Conversations with his colleagues led him to believe that the scale of the 
problem elsewhere in the country was equally bad. "Cannabis is as dangerous 
as any other drug and people must understand that it kills," said Mr Turner.

"From my long experience I can say that it is a very dangerous substance. 
Increasingly it is mentioned not only as the first drug taken by people who 
overdose, but also in suicides and accidental deaths.

"It is an awful waste of young lives. People are trying the drug at a very 
young age. Many go on to harder drugs and I am dealing with more and more 
heroin overdoses. People can also suffer severe consequences from the 
cannabis alone, however.

"Bereaved parents say to me, 'We didn't realise how dangerous it was until 
it was too late, if only we had done something'. It is heartbreaking."

Recent examples of the dangers of the drug cited by Mr Turner include the 
case of James Taylor, a 31-year-old, who was found hanged in his Torquay 
flat. The inquest heard that he had started smoking cannabis when he was 
about 15 and was a habitual user. The drug was blamed for the depression 
and mental health problems that later plagued him and which led to his death.

Mary Taylor, his mother, said that there was no doubt in her mind that 
cannabis had killed her son. "The cannabis made him paranoid from the word 
go. He went from a good-looking, artistic, talented chap to someone who did 
not trust anyone, not even his sister, who he was very close to.

"Because of the damage the drug did to him he became more isolated, more 
lonely and more depressed. The loveliest boy was destroyed by this drug. I 
would never have believed that James would have acted as he did when he 
took his own life.

"People who insist that cannabis is harmless are talking rubbish. We had 
years of hell when James was on cannabis, and that was all he was taking. 
Now he is dead and our family life has been devastated."

Cannabis also contributed to the death of Dragan Radoslavjevic, 42, from 
Paignton, Devon. He died earlier this year after using a power tool to 
drill a hole in his head. An inquest in Torquay heard that he suffered from 
depression and relied on drugs such as cannabis and heroin.

Mr Turner said that stronger varieties of cannabis - up to 10 times more 
potent than those used in the 1960s - were now common, leading to physical 
and mental problems in young people living in rural areas as well as in cities.

The drug robbed young people of their appetite for life, the coroner 
warned, with regular and prolonged use leading to panic attacks, paranoia, 
psychosis, racing heart, agitation, an increased risk of heart attacks and 
strokes, and even a tendency to violence.

"Cannabis is a mind-altering drug which has ravaging effects on the brain," 
he added.

In another case, Ralph Hamilton, 27, from Torquay, died when the car he was 
driving hit a bus in Totnes. Witnesses reported that he "looked almost 
comatose" as he drove directly into the front of the open-topped bus. Blood 
tests showed that Mr Hamilton had been taking cannabis and the inquest 
heard that he was a regular user.

Other coroners also expressed concern about cannabis. Michael Gwynne, the 
coroner for Telford and Wrekin, said that he feared that deaths would 
spiral if the Government decriminalised the drug. "There is clearly some 
evidence that cannabis is a contributory factor in drug-related traffic 
accident deaths but, because of the problems with toxicology, we are unable 
to state its full impact," he said.

"What the Government should not do is become more tolerant of the drug; 
that would involve setting legal limits, and risk cannabis becoming a major 
cause of road traffic deaths."

Veronica Hamilton-Deely, the Brighton and Hove coroner, said that national 
figures supplied by coroners' offices showed that illicit drugs, 
particularly cannabis, were increasingly present in victims of road traffic 
fatalities. These statistics showed that in 2000, 12 per cent of the 3,400 
people killed in road accidents showed traces of cannabis: a sixfold 
increase on a decade earlier.

The dangers of cannabis were highlighted in research published last month, 
which showed a sharp increase in drug-related deaths. According to the 
European Centre for Addiction Studies at St George's Hospital Medical 
School in London, in 2002, British coroners cited cannabis as the major 
cause of death in 18 out of 853 drug-related deaths. The drug was also 
implicated in a further 31 out of 1,579 deaths involving a cocktail of drugs.

The biggest killers were heroin, which was the major cause of death in 712 
cases, and cocaine, which was the principal factor in 147 deaths.
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