Last week (18 October 2017) VolteFace published an important new report on the issue of cannabis and mental health. Entitled Street Lottery, the report provides a concise and compelling new account of the deleterious consequences of leaving cannabis in the hands of the black market. Drawing on insights from expertss and original research ,the report sets out to stimulate a better informed and more nuanced public debate.
With inadequate treatment provision, a lack of understanding around the key points, and no effective policy in place, there is an urgency to this issue which can longer be sidestepped. We must be brave in discussing and properly examining the implications of, not only the existing illicit market for cannabis, but the real challenges that exist in implementing a safe and responsible system of regulation in which mental health is a key priority.
There is a huge amount of conjecture around the issue of cannabis use and mental health in the UK. The relationship between the drug and how it can impact both positively and negatively on someone’s mental health is a complex one. Debate on this issue is often polarised, with one camp proclaiming cannabis is so safe that it should be legalised and made available to all, and another stating that cannabis is more dangerous than some might think and that we should have harsher sentences for those both growing and consuming it.
The study, carried out in partnership with Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in Psychopharmaceutical Chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University, shows how street cannabis is now exceptionally potent in comparison to previous years. Buying it is a ‘lottery’ in which the consumer has next to no control over the product they are procuring. Cannabis of this nature appears to be deeply problematic for many people because it greatly increases the risk of a deterioration in mental health and the chance of forming dependency. Academic research in this area is supported by data and expert testimony from frontline services which suggest that street cannabis is having a direct impact on the number of people accessing mental health services and presenting at drug treatment centres.
Frontline services indicated that young people are experiencing a wide range of mental health problems linked to their consumption of street cannabis.
Three risk indicators
There are three risk indicators to consider when examining how problematic street cannabis is, the academic research suggests. The first is the level of THC. Higher amounts have stronger correlations with dependency and problematic side effects from paranoia to psychotic episodes. The second factor is how much CBD is present. This appears to be a protective chemical, which mitigates against the negative effects of THC. Finally, the age of the consumer is important when considering longer-term effects on cognition and brain development. Research indicates that, during the period when someone’s brain is developing and growing, cannabis can have a detrimental effect on this process.
In the UK’s illicit cannabis market, all three risk indicators are present. The young people interviewed and surveyed for this study said they can obtain cannabis more easily than alcohol. Frontline services indicated that young people are experiencing a wide range of mental health problems linked to their consumption of street cannabis. These groups of young people, who are often disengaged from frontline services, are rarely explored by academia and more needs to be done to examine the impact street cannabis is having on their mental health. Reports from the frontline and disclosures from young people themselves suggest that the relationship is problematic.
A complex relationship with cannabis
The relationship consumers can form with cannabis can be exceptionally complicated. While the research outlined in the report suggests that cannabis can lead to a deterioration in mental health, many people state that it helps them to cope with their mental health. Cannabis is used by large cohorts of people to deal with anxiety and problematic thoughts, and to these consumers it is medicinal in its nature. While this relationship is complex, and in many respects highly personal, VolteFace concludes that street cannabis is rarely cited as being beneficial for mental health.
It appears that two distinct groups exist: those who are informed about the cannabis they are buying, and those who have no idea and are essentially in the dark. The latter present far more of a concern as they are using forms of cannabis that seem to carry with them higher rates of addiction and dependency, and in the absence of resources, knowledge and understanding, problematic patterns of use remain, and the consumer’s mental health can suffer.
The report acknowledges that a variety of factors impact on the mental health of consumers, and that the relationship someone forms with cannabis cannot only be explained by reference to THC and CBD levels.
However, VolteFace go on to argue strongly that:
We can regulate and control THC and CBD to reduce the risks, inform consumers and offer choice. Markets are emerging around the world in which this is taking place.
The UK’s illicit cannabis market is out of control and dominated by more problematic forms of cannabis. Systems that bring the market into check, take it out of the hands of criminals and could generate vast tax revenues for government exist. Enforcement of this market has not worked and police forces, failing to see either the benefit or purpose of attempting to enforce it, are surrendering. The tip of the iceberg is becoming clear to see as mental health presentations for cannabis-induced psychosis increase, but the majority of problematic use remains hidden in people’s homes and away from treatment services. We need reform and new drug policies before the crisis deepens.