Alan O'Keeffe: 'Too many still unaware of harmful new breed of 'weed''
Medical professionals are sounding warnings about strong cannabis available on the streets
Controversy over the use and abuse of cannabis has been reignited in recent days.
Medical experts expressing fears about proposed policy changes sparked criticism from people who are seeking change.
Professionals involved in addiction services told the Sunday Independent that many politicians and the public still underestimate the mental health dangers of new and more powerful cannabis available on the streets.
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But their claim that moves for freer access to cannabis for medicinal purposes could be used by others to seek an easing of the ban on recreational cannabis proved controversial.
People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny said he was "furious" that a link was somehow being made between the campaign for improved access to medicinal cannabis and the liberalising of cannabis laws generally.
His own bill in the Oireachtas, which promoted medicinal uses for cannabis, has remained "in limbo" but he welcomed moves by the Department of Health to launch an access programme in the near future to allow doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis products with fewer restrictions.
Twenty patients in Ireland are being treated by doctors with special licences to prescribe cannabis-based medications.
He declared he would also be in favour of legalising the recreational use of cannabis in Ireland in future, in a similar way to what has happened in Canada and in some states in the US.
Twenty senior doctors, members of the new Cannabis Risk Alliance, said lawmakers should be wary of changing restrictions on cannabis.
Decriminalisation and the introduction of medicinal cannabis use in some countries were followed later by laws legalising recreational cannabis use, as happened in parts of the US and Canada, they claimed.
Professor Mary Cannon, a consultant psychiatrist at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin and a member of the alliance, said too many people still think cannabis is a relatively harmless substance while being unaware that modern, stronger versions are causing serious mental illness for some people.
She said politicians and members of the public seeking to ease restrictions and penalties for using cannabis need to realise it is very different from the weaker version circulating several years ago.
Stronger cannabis on sale on the streets is causing an increasing number of psychotic episodes among some users. She said she recently had two patients within a single week who developed schizophrenia brought on by psychotic episodes caused by cannabis.
She said research showed regular cannabis use was responsible for reducing the IQ of students and hampered academic achievement at a crucial stage in their lives.
Too many young people believed cannabis use was harmless and they needed to be informed that cannabis was now the drug that resulted in the most cases of patients needing treatment for addiction, she added.
A spokeswoman for Junior Health Minister Catherine Byrne, the minister responsible for the national drugs strategy, said a report has been completed which looked at alternative approaches to criminal sanctions for the possession of drugs for personal use.
A memo on the report will be prepared for Cabinet and it will be published afterwards.
There are indications that people caught with a small amount of cannabis may in the future be referred to addiction counselling rather than the criminal courts.
"It's all very well saying you will reduce the criminal sanctions and move people into counselling, but let's put those services and staff in place first," said Prof Cannon.
"I work in the mental health services and I know on the frontline how hard it is to get staff and keep staff.
"So I would be very wary about taking off criminal sanctions unless all the things they are promising are already in place and working properly.
"My worry is they will take away the criminal sanction and there will not be the alternative of services for people. They are not ready now."
The Department of Health stated: "There are no plans to legalise cannabis in Ireland.
"It is important that the working group's report is not misinterpreted as legalising access to controlled drugs, promoting the use of cannabinoids or diminishing the harms associated with illicit cannabis use."
Ms Byrne said imposing the stigma of drug convictions on young people can make life very hard for those who have turned a corner and seek to put their past mistakes behind them.
The minister told the Sunday Independent: "We need to take a more compassionate approach to problem drug and alcohol use, treating it first and foremost as a health issue.
"Our focus must be on supporting people to break that cycle of drug use and give them a second chance in life."
Dr Hugh Gallagher, a coordinator of HSE addiction services in north Dublin, said highly addictive cannabis was reducing the motivation of young people to continue with their studies and sporting activities.
Some cannabis is now 10 times stronger than earlier versions, he said.
Cannabis addiction was causing addicts to become angry and abusive at home and can lead to homelessness for some.
He has worked with opiate addicts on methadone programmes for many years and found that cannabis robbed addicts of motivation to combat their opiate addictions, he said.
"Cannabis is now the most common reason for people presenting to the drug addiction services," he said.
Making cannabis legal in parts of the United States has not been a success as a black market run by criminal gangs remained for stronger versions of the drug and it only served to normalise its use, he added.
Austin Prior, an addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre in Dublin, said: "I realise most people using cannabis do not experience the chaotic downside suffered by other cannabis users.
"But I have seen young people who understand that their addiction to cannabis has led to them letting go of their schoolwork and sports. Yet they still have no desire to stop.
"I've seen how parents look on as the children who were the apple of their eye undergo massive change with cannabis addiction.
"These young people can lose all motivation and are prone to angry outbursts and disregard the effects it has on their families.
"In the last five to 10 years, cannabis is causing very serious problems, including depression and psychotic episodes. It is extraordinarily difficult to give up.
"We need more discussion. The belief that cannabis is a harmless drug is a myth."