We must stop denying the link between cannabis and mental health

[Content warning: discussion of mental health]

It’s pretty much the oldest tale there is – smoke a joint and you’ll “go mad.”  It’s what parents, teachers and Governments have been telling us since forever, based on pretty much fuck all.  A 1930s “information” film about cannabis use, entitled “Reefer Madness” is now a cult satirical hit (amongst 15-year-old stoners), with its tales about how smoking weed makes you frantically play the piano before going on a murderous rampage, obviously.

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Every moral panic around drugs is based on tall tales and that’s as evident today as it ever has been.  Just last week,  we reported on how an ACTUAL FUCKING POLIS told a public body that new legal highs gave kids the ability to “jump between roofs.”   From the “mephedrone deaths” that had nothing to do with mephedrone to the frequent misreporting of “ecstasy deaths” that have nothing to do with MDMA, the media employs a creative attitude when it comes to scaring the shit out of us about drugs, with politicians always on hand to remind us about how bad all drugs are, except all the legal ones whose producers give them money.

The cannabis loltale of recent years has been the rise of the enigmatic “super skunk” – strains of potent cannabis unlike anything anyone has ever seen (mostly because, no-one’s ever seen them!).  Schools weans, who occupy the upper echelons of the supply chain, are all smoking 30 joints a day and ending up having mental health problems.  Except, that’s not really funny.

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Our illusive anti-hero

Before we go any further, it’s important to stress that we have no interest in the medicalisation of everything; people should be free to make informed choices about how they approach their own minds, that’s the most basic freedom there is.  It’s not my job to equate a  diagnosis with some kind of moral judgement.  People are entitled to have mental health which doesn’t meet anyone’s particular expectations without us getting to decide the state simply must intervene.  But to make an informed choice, we have to be informed and there is precious little information available to those who use cannabis.

While there’s clearly an element of sensationalism in the discussion, it’s not just the Daily Record who’re saying that there is a proven link between cannabis use and mental health. This week, a study by King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, showed users of skunk were up to three times more likely to be admitted with psychosis as non-users, with 24% of all new cases amongst users.

This does need to be contextualised, aside from those headline figures, 67% of admissions had used cannabis, compared with 63% of people in the control group . The key difference, aside from frequency of use, is that while only 19% of the control group stated they used “skunk like” as opposed to “hash like” cannabis more regularly, this figure rose to 53% of those admitted with first-episode psychosis.  While “was it brown or was it green?” is not exactly the height of scientific rigour, it still suggests a clear link between admissions and the use of certain varieties of cannabis.

A link is not the same as a cause, it’s entirely possible people who are predisposed to encountering more varied mental states might also be predisposed to using drugs which interact with that in some way. But “they’d probz have done it anyway” isn’t the height of scientific rigour either.

The official response from the Home Office to this study was that, “drugs such as cannabis are illegal because scientific and medical evidence demonstrates they are harmful” even though a recent Home Office study, which they were forced to release, confesses that there is, “no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.”

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It’s all kicking off at the Home Office

By doing what they always do and shouting “think of the children” and stressing the dangers of “super skunk” for young people, the moral panickers are unintentionally adding to the case for better regulation of the sale of cannabis.  Many young people have easy access to illegal drugs, getting something from someone at school is significantly less bother than trying to convince someone in an offie you’re not 13.  Given that I started on the booze at that age, I’m not suggesting alcohol regulation is entirely effective but  putting weed behind the counter would nonetheless reduce the exposure of a significant section of the population, who may be more likely to experience some of the less desired effects, compared with the current free for all.

At present, cannabis is produced, sold and consumed without any basic checks on its quality and strength, so there is no way to distinguish between those strains which might be harmful and those which aren’t.  If we are to legalise and regulate cannabis, it’s crucial that we know what impact that legislation will have on health outcomes, so any research which gives us a clearer picture must be encouraged.  The abject failure of successive Governments to fund such research suggests they simply do not wish to know the answers.   We can’t only accept the science we like but if we are to start protecting and enhancing our nation’s health, we have to start funding the science we need.  What little science we do have suggests cannabis remains far less harmful than both alcohol and tobacco.

It’s time to stop deriding the claim that a drug taken by people to alter their mental state might actually do so – that’s not an impossible concession to the “just say no” brigade, it’s one of the many reasons cannabis needs to be legalised, tested and regulated.

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Further Reading:

Yes we Cannabis: Reigniting Scotland’s drugs debate

The kids who grow our cannabis

Even the Home Office can’t hide the truth about our drug laws

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3 responses to “We must stop denying the link between cannabis and mental health

  1. We would have been happy to share this but not with the foul language. How to shoot yourself in the foot…

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