Hospitals brace themselves for surge of teen drug users
Latest synthetic highs can have lethal effects on those using them, consultant says
Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30
Hospitals are braced for a rise in young people in need of emergency treatment who can be left convulsed by fits after taking a form of synthetic cannabis known as 'Spice'.
It is the latest shady menace which can leave the user fighting for life, causing hallucinations and potentially fatal symptoms, warned Cork University Hospital emergency consultant Dr Chris Luke.
"Artificial cannabis is a big problem coming down the tracks," he warned.
"I expect to see a steady stream of people who have taken it coming to emergency departments across the country."
The potent substance, which can be smoked, comes from dried plant leaves which are crushed and rolled.
Dr Luke issued the warning after six young people ended up being rushed to the Cork hospital last week after taking the potentially lethal drug with the street name 'N-bomb'. One of the six, Alex Ryan (18), tragically died over the weekend.
Dr Luke said synthetic drugs bought online or on the street are profoundly dangerous and there is evidence emergency departments are seeing an increase in users suffering severe side-effects.
"There was a surge in attendances of people suffering delirium and psychosis until the ban on head shops a few years ago. The ban reduced the numbers coming to emergency departments, but there is another gradual increase again as people buy them online or on the streets," he said.
One of the most notorious online drugs is mephedrone, also known as 'snow blow' or 'meow meow'. It can have severe mind-altering effects.
"It has become a really serious killer in Northern Ireland and also in Scotland in the last five years," Dr Luke explained.
One problem faced by doctors treating users of these drugs, who can be extremely delusional and hallucinating, is the length of time it takes them to come down.
Hospital emergency consultants who are already coping with regular patients on trolleys, many of whom need intensive monitoring, have to care for a young person who is removed from reality and in a highly psychotic state.
Doctors must also treat symptoms without knowing what kind of drug the patient has taken, said Dr Luke.
"People hurt themselves on these drugs. They walk into traffic or walk through windows. They are disconnected from reality," he said.
Some die and others recover but they are in danger of mental health problems afterwards.
"The scale of drug-taking among Irish people is enormous," he added. "It is underestimated. In terms of statistics, we are said to be in the top three in Europe and among the most eager consumers of legal highs."
Dr Luke believes drugs education here has failed and the 'just say no' message must be reinforced. He is particularly concerned about the almost religious devotion to cannabis, which he claims "has become the holy communion of the middle classes."
"They believe in cannabis as a remedy for life ailments," he said. "I worry about the teenage boys who develop a cannabis habit and smoke it daily."
He said cannabis skunk is two to three times stronger than normal grass and is more likely to provoke psychiatric problems, psychosis, demotivation and difficulties with learning.
"There are plenty of pro-drug people, but we don't often hear the voices of mothers and fathers or talk about the people going into clinics," he added. "The daily use of a joint is a real hallmark of trouble.
"If you dare to suggest cannabis has side effects or is not entirely wonderful, you get a lot of abuse.
"I will be portrayed as some kind of reactionist propagandist. All I am saying is that, just as we have a problem with sugar, sleeping tablets and alcohol, cannabis is also a problem."
One high-profile case involved Shane Michael (inset left) and Brandon Skeffington.
Shane Michael (20) stabbed nine-year-old Brandon to death with a 19cm knife and then took his own life at their home in Banada, Co Sligo, in July 2014 - two months after he was released from St Columba's psychiatric hospital.
His inquest was told he suffered cannabis-induced psychotic symptoms.
A recent study also found more than one in three secondary school students aged between 15 and 18 in Cork city and its suburbs has used cannabis at some stage, and a majority were in favour of legalising it.
The Department of Education said drugs education is part of the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) course given in schools to help young people develop life skills and improve wellbeing.
However, teens often get information from websites like Spunout.ie. There is also continuing pressure on teens to fit in and be 'cool', which leaves many young people vulnerable.
How narcotics can effect the mind and body
Side effects: Lethargy, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis. It is linked to development of schizophrenia, lung disease and asthma.
Side effects: Overstimulation of heart and nervous system. It can cause heart attack and stroke.
Side effects: Paranoia and anxiety while causing vomiting and headaches. Blue fingers, fits, agitation, heart attacks.
Side effects: Memory problems, depression and anxiety. Dangerous overheating and dehydration.
Side effects: Agitation, aggression, confusion, paranoia and psychosis.
Side effects: Respiratory issues, depression, constricted pupils and nausea. It can also lead to muscle spasms, convulsions and coma.