Why marijuana remains a highly risky habit that can ravage young people's lives
Any debate around the legalisation of cannabis must take into account the harm it causes, one of the country's leading psychiatrists has warned.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Matthew Sadlier is calling for a public health campaign to educate people about the dangers of cannabis use.
As attitudes to cannabis use become more relaxed and tolerance increases in society in general, Dr Sadlier says many young people's lives are being wrecked by habitual use of the drug - and that this side of the story is not being heard.
The Government's latest National Drugs Strategy envisages decriminalising the possession of small amounts of drugs such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana for personal use.
And under a plan put forward by the Green Party in April, the gardaí would "tolerate" Dutch-style "coffee shops" allowing the consumption and sale of cannabis for over-18s under certain conditions.
To date, cannabis has been legalised in 21 countries for medical use including Australia, Colombia and Germany while a number of national governments are debating whether to decriminalise recreational use. Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2013 and the legalisation of recreational marijuana is due in July.
Dr Sadlier says with the focus on allowing a more liberal regime, now is the time to start a conversation about the risks and benefits.
In his work as a general adult psychiatrist in north Dublin over the last five years, he says he could comfortably say that a third of all his patients had been referred because of cannabis.
And Dr Sadlier says any debate must differentiate between medicinal cannabis and street cannabis. He says tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main mind-altering compound found in cannabis, is found in high levels in street cannabis while cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive component, is there in very low levels.
He explains that it's the CBD in medicinal cannabis that is the useful compound in the treatment of many conditions. However, he says medicinal and street cannabis are two totally different things and people must be made aware of this.
"There are people out there who have developed long-term psychotic illnesses from smoking cannabis. If they'd never smoked it, they would never have developed it. We know that acute usage causes neurological conditions. The question is does it have a long-term effect?
"We know that the younger you start smoking it, the more likely it is to have a lasting, damaging effect. What gets my blood boiling is that it's also carcinogenic. We have spent 40 years getting cigarette smoking down, but smoking cannabis has the same negative effects as cigarette smoking," says Dr Sadlier.
"I think there has to be a public health campaign because the information out there for young people is very confused. We have people speaking up for the medicinal effects. Street cannabis is a very different thing and it's very dangerous," he says.
"I have seen families ripped apart by cannabis use. I've seen people with good futures ahead of them fall into apathy due to chronic cannabis use. People need to be educated about this. In my opinion, it's much more dangerous than alcohol," says Dr Sadlier.
He says his fear is that while we're having the conversation about the medicinal benefits in certain conditions, the opportunity to discuss the negative effects is being lost.