Up and down the country, too many families are suffering the torture of watching their children squander their futures—bright children who have so much to live for ending up with so little. All too often, that is brought about by an addiction to skunk cannabis—a drug that is ruining young lives.
I am not a clinician or a scientist, so I am not going to give a hugely exhaustive overview of the chemical content of skunk cannabis. All I would say is that the THC— Tetrahydrocannabinol—content of skunk cannabis is now six times higher than it was in the cannabis of the ’70s and ’80s: 18% compared to 3%. The CBD—Cannabidiol— content of skunk cannabis, which is the bit of the chemical that counteracted the psychotic effects of THC, has now been removed from the drug. What we see is young people suffering as a consequence.
It is believed that skunk cannabis works by releasing dopamine into the brain, which creates a sense of euphoria, but it also has many side-effects—hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, attention impairment and emotional impairment. The problem is that young brains do not properly form in adolescence; they do not do so until they are in their early 20s. What the drug does in its simplest form is to open up gates in the brain that may never close again, or, if they do close, only partially.
If a youngster smokes skunk cannabis, at best their academic performance will be retarded. So many teachers have told me about young, bright children getting to a certain age and then their academic performance just goes backwards—not slowly, but rapidly, as they go from being at the top of the class, to the middle, to the bottom and to not turning up in class at all. That is a tragedy; a young mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Too many young people suffer severe psychotic effects linked to skunk cannabis. One in four of us carry a faulty gene for dopamine transmission. If a youngster has that gene and smokes skunk cannabis, they are six times more likely to get a psychotic illness than the average youngster out there. If both parents give them two of these genes, they are 10 times more likely to suffer a psychotic incident and suffer long-term brain damage.
With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to read a few tragic stories. In a sense, I am a voice for all those parents who cannot be here tonight. Here is the first:
“Our son was a normal, bright, outgoing, sociable boy and good at sports. He started taking cannabis at about 15 years old. He experienced a dramatic change in personality at 23, which resulted in a major psychotic episode. In recent years, he has been under psychiatric care and on antipsychotic medication, and has not been able to keep down a steady job. He has been sectioned twice and remains under a community treatment order. His continuous use of cannabis has destroyed a fine young man who now has no ambition or awareness of responsibility. However, he is beginning to accept that the cannabis habit will lead to more severe mental health problems. It is hugely distressing to watch this lovely boy turn into a complete stranger.”
Another parent wrote:
“George was our only son to turn to drugs. His addictions began early—tobacco in junior school, cannabis in senior. At first we were in the dark but George’s hand was forced by events and we were informed. He was warned. However, nothing stopped him. His life and 2 marriages were ruined. The French wife aborted their 2 babies—she could not cope with George in tow—the dangers, the poverty, the filth, the dark, loving, violent, mesmeric personality he had become. George asked me to drive him to the clinic and wept all the way in the car. I tried to comfort him but I ached for my unborn grandchildren. He knocked me down a few times—he always apologised—George was such a gentleman. He spent 2 years in a mental hospital. He was very schizophrenic by now.”
Sadly, George is now dead.
Let me read just two more stories to the House. Here is the first:
“Michael became noticeably unwell aged 16 in February 2003 whilst on a family holiday. I found some cannabis in his room. This was a shock as Michael didn’t even drink alcohol as far as I was aware. His mood changes were almost immediate. Laughing one minute, crying the next. He spent all day in bed and had no energy, no motivation. By December 2003, Michael was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. It was the worst day of my life—he cried for his parents and had to be held down. He just screamed—it was heart-rending. After being there for 3 months, he was discharged. I thought this was the end, it was unfortunately the beginning of a road that I would not wish on my worst enemy. It is like Russian Roulette who becomes psychotic.”
Nine years later, the torture continues for that family.
Here is the final story:
“We were a normal, happy, busy family with four children until our second child, 16 ½ became involved with a new group of friends and started taking cannabis. Within a very short space of time, our happy, funny, healthy son turned into a screaming, paranoid, unhappy young man. He refused to go to college, worked only occasionally, and became a violent thug. When confronted, he would turn on us both physically and verbally, on one occasion breaking his father’s ribs because his father had intervened when he was threatening me. He would kick doors in, smash glass panels, destroy washing baskets, crockery, ornaments, etc. Our lives became a living hell. He has been clean from cannabis for a year now and is gradually rebuilding his life. He still has flashes of paranoia, has no qualifications and will always have to fight to overcome his criminal convictions.”
Those are harrowing stories, and they have been repeated thousands of times across the country. Child and adolescent mental health services across the country are dealing with thousands of youngsters and adolescents who are suffering from severe psychotic illnesses, and there is a causal link with skunk cannabis.
For the past decade we have talked about harm reduction, and we have an organisation called FRANK that leads the educational process on drugs, but harm reduction is not enough. There is no safe amount of skunk cannabis that a youngster can smoke. I do not condone drinking, but a youngster can have a glass of wine or a bottle of beer and suffer little ill effect, although I would not recommend that young people do it. Taking skunk cannabis is like holding a loaded revolver to your head and playing Russian roulette. You do not know whether you have the gene, and you do not know when the gun will fire the bullet. Some people who become addicted to skunk cannabis end up with such severe psychoses that they take their own lives. It would be interesting to know from coroners how many young people who have committed suicide recently were addicted to skunk cannabis.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising a matter that could well justify a full debate here or in Westminster Hall. In Northern Ireland, we have seen a rash of suicides as a result of this very drug. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the laws on drugs should be tightened? I ask because what is happening in his constituency is happening in mine, and throughout the United Kingdom.
I am very interested by what the hon. Gentleman says, but this evening’s debate is not about classification. A Health Minister will respond to it. However, classification might be a subject for another debate here, and if the hon. Gentleman tables a motion for such a debate I shall certainly support him.
For many young people, smoking skunk cannabis is like holding a loaded gun to their heads. It might not kill them—they may continue to have a life—but if they suffer from severe psychosis or schizophrenia, it will not be much of a life. It might be just an existence.
The Government need to get to grips with this, but the problem is that law makers and the clinicians who advise them view cannabis through the prism of their own experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, and, as I said earlier, things have moved on since then. The drug with which we are dealing now is highly toxic and highly dangerous. We must talk not about harm reduction, but about harm prevention.
We are responsible adults. I have had enough of the current trend of everyone trying to make adults children’s best friends. I am not my children’s best friend; I am their parent—I am their father and I must guide them and have their interests at heart. That is the duty of adults. We must not abrogate responsibility. We have to make young people aware of the risks they run if they smoke skunk cannabis.
I have an admission to make here tonight. I was the beneficiary of very good drugs education at the age of 14 and 15. I was educated in the mid-’80s. I have not lived a blameless life. There are things I have done in my past that I am ashamed of and I wish I had not done, but, as the Prime Minister said, everyone is entitled to a past. There were many drugs, but the one drug I really did not touch was LSD, because I was told that if we take LSD just once, we can have a bad trip and that can be the end; we may never return from that experience—the gate in our brain that opens up may never close. If we are lucky enough in our youth to survive using it intact as a whole person, we might in our mid-40s—as I am now—be driving our children back from football practice and suddenly start hallucinating again. That terrified me. The idea that I could lose my brain and my future terrified me, and ensured that at a time when LSD was rife in London I never—ever—touched it.
Drug education works, but we need to educate the educators. They need to be aware of the research that shows a strong causal link between skunk cannabis, psychosis and schizophrenia. As I have said, our health trusts are full of young people suffering the consequences. Families are being destroyed.
I will conclude by saying just a few more words. In an ideal world—let us have lofty ambition and strive for an ideal world—I do not want any youngster to take drugs. It is not a good thing to do; it is not good for their health, their future or their prospects. I will just say this, however: it is a lot easier to repair a septum in one’s nose than to repair a brain. Once our brain is gone, often the best pharmaceutical drugs in the world will not bring it back again—that is it. I have talked to dozens of parents across the country who are facing up to the fact that their children—the children they love, and brought into the world and nurtured—now have no future but simply an existence to look forward to. I do not think that is good enough, and I do not want to settle for it.
So here is my call to action for the Government: please take this matter seriously. Skunk cannabis has changed over the past 30 years. It is a major public health risk. It is robbing thousands of people of an opportunity to live fulfilled lives. I have worked with the Minister, and she has been fabulous up to this point, and I am sure she will continue her efforts to get this topic higher up the Department’s agenda.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to my enormously good friend Mary Brett, a former teacher who has worked for decades in the interests of young people and their welfare.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Walker for raising an issue that is not only important, but seems to be attracting more attention in recent years. It was a pleasure to meet him and representatives of Cannabis Skunk Support, Mary Brett and Jeremy Edwards. In part, this greater attention is down to my hon. Friend’s work and that of the all-party groups on cannabis and children and on mental health.
I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend because although he is always passionate, his passion for this issue shone through in his eloquent and, at times, moving speech. This issue affects us all. We have been young ourselves and he was very open about his personal experience. Many of us are parents and our children are growing up in an increasingly complicated world, and the problem cannot be ignored.
Cannabis is the most commonly used drug in England today, and its use is particularly common among younger people. One of the big problems is that of perception. Many people see cannabis as benign, harmless, a throwback to the ’60s—I am showing my age—’70s or ’80s, or a source of artistic inspiration, particularly when compared with other, harder drugs. That is a very dangerous misconception these days. For a start, when people talk about the cannabis smoked 50 years ago, they are referring to something very different from that which we see on the streets today.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the most common form of cannabis used today is skunk, which is, on average, about four times stronger than herbal cannabis, the type with which some in this House might be familiar. It does not take a leap of faith to understand that regularly using cannabis of this strength could be very harmful indeed. It could result in dependence, for example, or in the development of serious mental health side effects. Those can be both short and long term, and can be devastating for anyone, including children and young people, causing a host of problems, including family breakdown and debt, and the sort of tragic stories that we heard about from my hon. Friend.
Questions still do exist about just how strong the link is between cannabis use and mental health problems, but there is without doubt a link—that much is certain. Using cannabis can lead to serious problems, such as psychotic episodes and other mental health issues. In the case of young people, whose brains are still growing and developing, that is a particular cause for concern. Any damage caused then could affect them for the rest of their lives. The fact is that the best way to prevent damage like that is to avoid cannabis in the first place, but we are not stupid and we know that many people, both young and old, will be put in situations where cannabis is offered to them, so we need to take some very clear action.
The drug strategy that we published in December 2010 outlined action that we will take to prevent and reduce the demand for drugs, by establishing a “whole life” approach to the problem. That involves breaking the intergenerational paths to dependency by supporting vulnerable families; providing good quality education and advice so that young people and their parents are provided with credible information actively to resist substance misuse; and, of course, intervening early with young people and young adults. My hon. Friend mentioned the need to educate the educators, and it is important that those giving support get continued support in their work.
The latest data show that almost 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds reported taking cannabis in the past year. Although that is a long-term decrease, it is still too many. Those data show us two things: that the situation is improving and that drug use is by no means normal behaviour among young people. That is an important fact for young people to take on board. The Department for Education is taking action to maintain that decline. A review is going on into personal, social, health and economic education, which includes drug education, to determine how schools can be better supported. Of course, schools are not the only setting in which we can undertake this sort of educational programme. I will also be meeting the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend Sarah Teather to discuss these issues soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne also mentioned FRANK. Our drug strategy highlights the important role that FRANK has to play in providing information and advice, both to young people and to their parents or guardians. A review of how FRANK is used showed that the vast majority of young people preferred accessing FRANK online. Based on that review, as I recently discussed with my hon. Friend, we are in the process of improving the FRANK service, making it easier to use the website. We are also updating the tone and style of its language, so that it is more relevant to young people and provides them with the information and advice they need in a way that is accessible and provides clear messages.
We are also taking other steps to help people who already have a problem. In March, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence produced guidance on the assessment and management of people with psychosis and co-existing substance misuse. It will help providers and commissioners to ensure that services are appropriate for young people with psychosis and substance misuse problems. We recently published a mental health strategy to improve services for those who are affected by mental health problems. The strategy focuses on the importance of improving the quality and productivity of services and on making efficiency savings that can be reinvested back into the service to improve it still further.
Over the next five years, we will be putting around £400 million into psychological therapies in all parts of England for young people who are dependent on drugs. Those therapies will include talking therapies, supported where appropriate by family interventions. This issue affects not only individuals but whole families. The strategy will also address issues such as mental ill health and homelessness. Currently, 24,000 young people access specialist support for drug or alcohol misuse and the figures are good—97% of them are seen within three weeks of referral. However, we have to ensure that the quality of support stays high, so that every young person who needs help is given what they need. We will continue to improve the quality of that support and to make sure that it responds to the right people at the right time.
The letters my hon. Friend read out were moving and evocative. They demonstrate the human story behind this problem. Child and adolescent mental health services have a part to play, but we need to do a great deal more. We need to get the prevention right and we need to get support in when those preventive measures have not helped. He talked about moving from harm reduction to harm prevention and I could not agree more. We need to ensure that young people grow up with the skills they need to make what are sometimes difficult decisions about the choices they face. Addressing legalisation is not enough; we all know about the legal highs. What we need is for young people to make good decisions about the choices they face. I commend my hon. Friend and those who have written to him on sharing those experiences with us today.
Our position on cannabis use is clear: we will continue to focus on young people because if they are protected right from the start, they will be safer throughout their lives. Not only will their mental health be safeguarded, but their exam results and social development will benefit, their future options will remain open and their chances will remain bright. It is terrible to hear about young people who are struck down by poor decisions that are often made through ignorance. I am sure that position is shared by my hon. Friend and all hon. Members present. Let me assure him that his call for action is being answered in full. I was pleased to hear his complimentary remarks about me so far—I noticed the slight equivocation—and I assure him that I do not think he will be disappointed in the future. I will do all I can in my position to ensure that we do everything possible to protect the health of young people.
Question put and agreed to.