Pubdate: Sun, 16 Jan 2005
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2005
Author: Michael Day, Health Correspondent


Liberal attitudes to cannabis are putting millions of young people's
mental health at risk, senior doctors have warned.

The Royal College of General Practitioners said that acceptance of the
drug and greater availability of stronger forms of it were leading to
rising rates of depression, psychosis and schizophrenia.

Dr Clare Gerada, of the college's drugs misuse unit, said: "Health
warnings are falling on deaf ears, drowned out by the cries of
powerful liberal pro-legalisation groups."

Dr Gerada was speaking before a meeting of the college this week to
discuss the health threat posed by the drug. Her attack comes a year
after the drug was downgraded from Class B to Class C. People caught
with cannabis are let off with a warning and the drug is

"With cannabis more pop-ular than tobacco and higher potencies more
widely available than before, it is time we looked again at the health
risks," said Dr Gerada.

"There is clear evidence that high levels of use, especially among
teenagers who are physically and mentally still developing, carries
with it the increased risk of psychosis and respiratory conditions
such as asthma."

The Conservatives have pledged to return cannabis to Class B status.
David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said: "The next Conservative
government will reflect this by reversing Labour's decision to
downgrade it."

Almost a third of 16- to 24-year-old men used cannabis in 2003,
according to the latest Department of Health figures. In November,
figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug
Addiction showed that two in five British 15-year-olds had tried
cannabis - the highest rate in Europe.

More worrying, Dr Gerada said, was the increase in super-strong
versions of the drug, known as skunk. "The truth is, genetically
modified forms of the drug are the norm," she said. The aim of the
meeting is to give a voice to the thousands of GPs struggling to cope
with the side-effects - often mental illnesses - of cannabis users.

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane,
said: "The Government has sent out a mixed message that cannabis is
not as harmful as other drugs and yet for some people it is as harmful
as crack cocaine or heroin.

"Unlike cannabis, heroin does not affect the chemical messenger
systems linked to schizophrenia."

A recent report in the British Medical Journal revealed that smoking
cannabis once or twice a week almost doubled the risk of developing
psychotic symptoms later in life. Robin Murray, a professor of
psychiatry at King's College London, said that since the 1980s doctors
had begun to see a link between psychotic symptoms and cannabis.

Iain Shearer, 34, an archaeologist from south London who recently
stopped smoking cannabis, said: "I smoked a lot, particularly skunk,
and was getting worried about what it was doing to me.

"It affected my concentration, made me depressed, affected my
short-term memory. There were times when I got really paranoid about
friendships and relationships. It was horrible."

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: "The Government's message is
that all controlled drugs, including cannabis, are harmful and that no
one should take them." 
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