Pubdate: Sat, 07 Jan 2012
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2012 The Irish Times
Author: Carl O'Brien


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Recent labelling of cannabis as a major 'problem
drug' may surprise those who have smoked the odd
joint in the past. But a new, highly potent
strain now being grown in Ireland is more harmful
than the drug's benign image would suggest, writes CARL O'BRIEN

IRELAND'S FASTEST-growing problem drug is not
being sourced from the poppy fields of
Afghanistan or remote Moroccan hillsides. It is
not arriving into the country in steel shipping
containers or being dropped off at remote harbours in the dead of night.

It is growing mostly behind the calm facade of
suburbia, inside rented apartments or houses, in
affluent and poorer neighbours alike. Homes which
have often been stripped of furniture to build
indoor grow houses are turning out fresh crops of
high-strength herbal cannabis every 15 weeks or so.

Hash, based on cannabis resin, has traditionally
been the main form of the drug in Ireland. But
increasingly, grass or skunk   produced from
dried plant material   is taking over on the
streets. The level of cannabis's main
psychoactive chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol or
THC, is several times higher in grow-house skunk compared with hash.

The expansion of grow houses and increased
expertise in using hybrid forms of the plant,
along with hydroponics   use of nutrient
solutions   means growers have been able to
significantly increase the strength of the high.

"For young people starting off on this, it's like
skipping beer and getting straight into malt
whiskey," says Gary Broderick of the Dublin-based
Saol Project, who has worked as an addiction
counsellor for the past 20 years. "We really
should have a different name for the kind of
cannabis available these days, because it is much more potent than before."

This anxiety over cannabis may seem hysterical to
anyone whose rite of passage included smoking a
joint at some hazy point in the past. The image
of cannabis, the most commonly used illegal drug
in Ireland, remains mostly benign. It doesn't
have the scary connotations of heroin. It's even
hailed by some as a drug which will play a key
role in medicine into the future. But all
indications are that skunk is far more powerful than what came before.

In recent weeks, two reports have indicated a
significant shift in the way these more potent
forms of cannabis are perceived. Figures released
from the Health Research Board show that cannabis
overtook heroin in 2010 as the "most common
problem drug" among new cases on treatment programmes.

In addition, the National Advisory Committee on
Drugs warned that herbal cannabis, or skunk, in
Ireland has a higher potency than the imported
variety, creating a greater risk of damage to people's health.

The study, by the Forensic Science Laboratory,
which operates out of Garda headquarters in
Dublin, analysed cannabis products to establish
their THC levels. Not only did home-grown
cannabis have much higher levels of THC, but it
also lacked a substance called cannabidiol (CBD),
which seems to protect the brain from the effects of THC.

Recent studies in the UK have shown that there is
a higher risk of psychosis in those who smoke
this type of high-potency cannabis. There has
also been mounting evidence linking skunk with
damaging long-term effects on the brains of some
users, especially younger people.

Unease over skunk has even been sending ripples
through the Netherlands, a country famed for its
official tolerance for cannabis. The government
there has announced plans to classify
high-potency cannabis alongside hard drugs such
as cocaine and ecstasy, the latest step in a
continuing reversal of the country's liberal policies.

THE CRINAN YOUTH PROJECT, based in the rambling
former Magdalene Laundry building on Sean
MacDermott Street in Dublin's north inner city,
was set up to deal with the devastation caused by heroin.

Nowadays, few young people are using the drug.
Instead, problem drugs tend to be skunk, as well
as a combination of benzodiazepines and mephedrone (also known as

Most of the young people attending the
project   typically aged between 18 and 21   say
skunk has become the most popular drug on the
streets over the past year or so, particularly
since the closure of headshops, which supplied a
range of legal highs. While many describe
negative experiences such as paranoia, most heavy
users feel dependent on the drug and end up
spending most of their weekly income on it.

"If it's good weed, it really does your head in,"
says Adam (21). "The other day a motor bike came
up near me, and I thought I was going to be shot.
I was paranoid out of my head. That's what it does to you."

Louise (18) says she spends most of the =80200 a
week she gets from her Fas course on skunk. The
varieties differ: white widow, amnesia haze or
purple haze. She describes getting
"whiteys"   turning white, getting sick   from
the stronger home-grown grass which she tries to
avoid. It doesn't stop her, though.

"It's =8050 a bag, which is 2.5 grams. So, I'd get
maybe four bags a week," she says. "You notice
the grass getting stronger and stronger. I'm
losing weight, not eating. And when you don't
have it, you get the shakes. My ma knows about
it. She can tell when I'm having my 'withdrawals'. I get frustrated and

John, also 18, describes often hearing voices and
feeling panicky after using skunk; he says he'd
love to give up the habit, but feels too
dependent on it. He also takes benzodiazepines,
usually five at a time, after smoking a few joints.

"As far as I can see, it's taking over around
here . . . when you feel the stone coming down,
then the paranoia kicks in. But only for about 45
minutes. So, you need to use benzos to get to
sleep after using grass. I end up getting whacked out of it."

The cost of skunk means many of his friends end
up snatching phones or breaking into cars to pay
for drugs. He's been arrested several times, but
hasn't been jailed yet. But his friend, Adam, is
just out of prison for drug-related theft.

The effects of skunk also cross the social
divide. Across town, the offices of Detect, an
early intervention service for psychosis, are
based in the anonymous surroundings of a business
park in south Dublin. The idea is to remove the
stigma surrounding mental illness and to
encourage people to come for help and support.

Liz Lawlor, the service's principal psychologist,
says she is worried by the rising number of young
people and heavy cannabis users contacting Detect
who are experiencing damaging side-effects such
as psychosis, panic attacks and other symptoms.

"We see peaks after events like Oxegen, with
young people presenting with paranoia, delusion,"
she says. "Or they might be engaged in what we
call safety behaviour; that is, doing things
which they feel will make them safer, like
walking a different route home because they're
convinced they're being followed."

The average age of people receiving treatment at
the centre is 34   but among cannabis users, the
average age falls to 27. The risks of the drug
have been well documented, such as its effect on
cognitive performance, learning and memory, and
liability to psychotic experiences and becoming
very suspicious and paranoid. It is likely, says
Lawlor, that more potent forms of the drug have the same effects, but worse.

Dr Mary Clarke, a consultant psychiatric and
clinical lead for the service, says their
findings over several years of follow-up research
suggests that even a short-term negative
experience can have lasting damage later in life.

If more potent forms of cannabis are causing
problems, what is being done about it? Many drug
treatment centres set up to deal with heroin and
so-called hard drugs are only beginning to deal
with the rise in skunk. There is also, say
experts, a lack of education over the dangers
posed by these stronger forms of cannabis.

But legalise-cannabis campaigners, such as
Roscommon-South Leitrim TD Luke "Ming" Flanagan,
say it is our laws that are making cannabis
dangerous. "When they banned alcohol in the US,
you didn't know what you were dealing with, what
strength it was or what they were putting in the bottle," Flanagan says.

He agrees that the drug is potentially
dangerous   as with any drug   but says his
biggest fear is what people are bulking up the
drug with. The Forensic Science Laboratory says
it has found a variety of material mixed up with
skunk, such as shards of glass and other
materials to mimic the look of crystals.

"What will that do to people's lungs at the end
of the day?" asks Flanagan. "Of course, some
people run into problems using cannabis. But at
the end of the day, it's likely they'd run into
problems using other things. And criminalising
them doesn't help the situation."

He also takes issue with the findings of the
Forensic Science Laboratory regarding the content
of grow-house skunk. Flanagan says the
Irish-cultivated cannabis that was analysed was
most likely taken from grow houses and hadn't
fully matured. This, he says, may account for the very low levels of CBD.

The demands of legalise-cannabis campaigners for
legalisation or regulation are highly unlikely to
be met, even in the long-term. Most drug
treatment professionals say our focus should be on education.

"Cannabis is not a monster drug," says one. "Like
cigarettes, it is issues of frequency, duration
and potency. This is a matter of public education."

Drug therapists and organisations say it's
important not to overstate fears about cannabis.
After all, anti-drugs campaigns with siren
warnings have hardly been particularly effective
in the past. The drug's effects for most people
will be fleeting. But there is growing evidence
that skunk is more likely to trigger panic
attacks, manic depression or psychosis among a sub-set of vulnerable people.

"It's important that people know what they are
getting involved with," says Gemma Collins of the
Crinan Youth Project. "We're about helping people
to get beyond relying on these drugs, using
positive reinforcement and other ways to relax rather."

Gary Broderick of the Saol Project acknowledges
that it's "hard not to sound like a grandad" when
warning about the effects of cannabis. But, he
cautions, there is no getting away from its potentially serious

"One of the problems is that the seeds being used
to grow grass were legal in headshops until
recently, so it's still considered 'soft'. So,
it's easier for cannabis to be missed when we talk about drug treatment.

"It's not like anyone is going to died from
cannabis   but they may well end up in hospital
with psychosis or develop other mental health
problems. We need much more awareness about this."

A potent mix Rise in the strength of Irish cannabis

LATEST RESEARCH indicates that home-grown herbal
cannabis is much more potent than imported varieties of the plant.

While Ireland doesn't have the climate to grow
these plants outdoors, they can be grown indoors
using hydroponics   nutrient solutions   and intensive lighting equipment.

In many cases, female rather than male plants are
used as they cannot then produce seeds, meaning
all of the energy within the plant goes into the
production of THC content, increasing the plant's potency.

A study, by the Forensic Science Laboratory which
operates out of Garda headquarters in Dublin,
analysed cannabis products to establish their
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. This is the
main psychoactive component of cannabis. There is
increasing international concern about rising THC
levels, particularly in herbal cannabis of the
skunk variety, given its side effects on the
brain, which can include psychosis.

Dr Des Corrigan, chairman of the National
Advisory Committee on Drugs which commissioned
the research, said: "Many of the plants being
grown here are genetically selected to ensure
they produce high levels of THC, but they also
lack a substance called cannabidiol (CBD), which
seems to protect the brain from the effects of THC."

Samples from seizures of cannabis herb found that
Irish cultivation had very high THC levels and
very low CBD levels compared to imported herb and
resin, or hash. The average proportion of THC for
suspected imports was 5.8 per cent, while for
Irish samples the figure was 13.5 per cent.

These figures are comparable with similar
research in the UK and other European countries.
When samples of cannabis resin or hash were
analysed, researchers found THC levels were much
lower. In these cases, typical THC levels were
between 1 per cent and 4 per cent, while the CBD
levels were higher than those recorded in herbal cannabis samples.
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