When debating cannabis law, let's be honest about the risks
Like many people of the 1960s generation, I smoked a bit of cannabis in my 20s. Did it do me any harm? Maybe not, but all that deep inhaling of the narcotic probably didn't do my lungs much good either.
The decriminalisation of cannabis – which is to be debated in the Dail this coming week at the instigation of Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's Cannabis Regulation Bill – isn't something that provides an easy black-and-white solution.
Perhaps, as pro-cannabis voices argue, far too much garda time and resources are wasted chasing up and impounding this relatively minor drug. Even so, dope smokers find it relatively easy to access their supply.
Perhaps the current situation does favour criminals. Perhaps we should consider the medicinal benefits that marijuana can have for some disabling conditions – it can be a muscle relaxant.
And maybe we should apply the old legal maxim of lex minimus: that is, the law should not over-concern itself with small matters. Mr Flanagan's bill would allow for small amounts of home cultivation and possession for personal use, besides the tolerance of "cannabis social clubs".
Yet if there is to be a change in approach towards cannabis, it should be done with a clear mind and full knowledge of what that entails. And it should be made known, as a health education issue, that cannabis use can be a trigger for schizophrenia, especially when used by adolescents. This has been established in a number of respected medical and psychiatric journals.
Schizophrenia is an extremely distressing neurological disorder which profoundly affects the thought processes, is often associated with paranoia and auditory hallucinations (hearing voices).
Nobody is quite sure about the exact cause, but the current research is focused on neurobiology – the composition of the brain, which is particularly vulnerable during adolescence. (There are notably high clusters of schizophrenia in parts of Ireland, which points to a genetic component.)
In any case, nobody would wish schizophrenia on any young person, particularly since the condition is also linked with depression and sometimes suicide. The illness can be controlled with medication, but often requires continual supervision.
And one of the enablers of schizophrenic conditions – especially for those who might already have a predilection towards neurological disorders – is the use of cannabis. "Using cannabis in adolescence increases the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia in adulthood," reported the 'British Medical Journal' in the renowned Dunedin study of 2002. "Early cannabis use by age 15 confers greater risk for schizophrenia outcomes."
"Cannabis use is associated with poor outcomes in existing schizophrenia and may precipitate psychosis in individuals with pre-existing liability," reported the 'Schizophrenia Journal' in July 2005.
The 'American Journal of Psychiatry' and psychiatric studies in Sweden and Norway have all agreed with these findings. For any young person with a vulnerability to depression or psychosis, cannabis can be a serious risk.
The personal story of Henry Cockburn is one of the most compelling witnesses of the danger to young people. Henry Cockburn is the son of Patrick Cockburn, the renowned journalist and war reporter who grew up in Youghal, Co Cork (his father was Claud, a radical writer and sometime Communist, and his mother was Patricia, who came from an Anglo-Irish family).
Patrick and Henry Cockburn last year published a poignant, sometimes harrowing, autobiographical account of how cannabis destroyed Henry's adolescence – 'Henry's Demons' – and anybody blithely contemplating the legalisation and merry distribution of cannabis should read it.
Patrick Cockburn has said that his son played "Russian roulette" with cannabis: the lad smoked a heck of a lot of it during his teenage years, and in consequence became schizophrenic. There is no doubting the diagnosis – Henry's condition was a direct result of his cannabis habit.
Henry Cockburn is a brave, honest and very nice young man, and treatment for his condition has helped. But it has been a devastating situation for him and his family.
'Henry's Demons' is an eye-opener about the effect that cannabis can have on a young person who thought he was just doing the kind of cool thing that all young folk do – enjoy a bit of dope.
Pro-cannabis users will say that there are risks in everything – cars cause road deaths, but we don't ban them because of that. Alcohol certainly causes more damage than any other drug, but it is now embedded in our culture, and anyway, most people can drink in moderation. Even tobacco, which is responsible for a range of illnesses, is nevertheless legal – and there are also individuals who can enjoy a smoke and don't die young. So you can't ban everything just because it harms a minority.
That's a fair point, but if you are considering decriminalising a narcotic you should nonetheless be well informed about what you are doing, and be absolutely aware of the risks – which, once de-criminalised, will be minimised by those who have a commercial interest in marketing it and expanding the legal basis for using it.
The Irish Independent 'Mind Yourself' campaign is about raising awareness of mental health issues, and offering help with suicide and depression. If the Irish gene pool is particularly susceptible to schizophrenia, with its attendant afflictions of depression and suicide, then surely we should consider very, very soberly the idea of unleashing more cannabis on a youth market.