Cannabis and Psychosis (Young People)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 9th June 2011.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 6:00 pm, 9th June 2011

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this evening’s Adjournment debate. It is appropriate that my debate follows an informative debate on child protection.

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.


Darryl Bickler
Posted on 10 Jun 2011 11:19 am (Report this annotation)

Really for the speaker to admit to not being an expert, and then to make a long speech about the subject is quite absurd. I appreciate genuine concern, but this contribution makes no attempt to understand the complexities of the issue. Whilst cannabis use may be a factor, this is so simplistic that I feel it necessary in the interests of balance to make a controversial point, but one which whilst being too simplistic itself, is less simplistic than what the speaker is offering here.

What happens to many young drug users is that a war of fear is waged against them, the war continues using the police and courts, the war using bad science - all these front load negative outcomes into vulnerable minds. You create the outcome of disapproval, of isolation, of illness, of being criminal, of being deviant - you load on stigma after stigma and then when you finally find what you are looking for, you say you were right all along. It is cannabis that is relevant, because as a user of cannabis you are seemingly fair game for society to destroy - and all of this to line the pockets of the drug companies and alcohol dealers and to satisfy the needs of some people to demonise others - cannabis users are the new whipping boys for some of those who previously felt better about themselves for hating gays or other minorities, until that was found to be discrimination.


John Leeson
Posted on 10 Jun 2011 12:02 pm (Report this annotation)

First of all the removal of CBD from cannabis (not that this is wholly true) has occurred because cannabis is unregulated there is no quality control on any cannabis in the UK. It would be pretty easy if cannabis was regulated and controlled to have cannabis for sale that does have an amount of CBD which would reduce the psychotic propensity of THC. The reason that we have high THC levels in street cannabis is purely because sucessive Governments have left the distribution and quality of cannabis in the hands of organized crime.

These stories are tragic I too lost a good friend to drug use he died from alcohol poisening. The risks to health from alcohol as the Governments chief scientist states is far greater than that of cannabis.The only way to reduce the risks to our young is by education and regulation and control.

What we do now by criminalising users is succinctly expressed by one of the above stories " will always have to fight to overcome his criminal convictions". This is what we do in our war on (some ) drugs which is really a war on our own citizens. Crimnalising particularly the young has no deterrant affect but it certainly means that there lives will more likely be one of underachievment and maybe criminality because there use has been treated as a criminal problem rather than a public health problem.

Jeff Ditchfield
Posted on 10 Jun 2011 12:10 pm (Report this annotation)

If alcohol was prohibited then Charles would be saying that whiskey is 10 times stronger than beer and consumers do not know what they are getting.

If you believe that CBD and THC levels are important then label the stuff with the THC and CBD levels, by labelling you allow the consumer to make an informed decision

Posted on 10 Jun 2011 1:00 pm (Report this annotation)

Charles Walker MP may not be an expert clinician or scientist, but he has done a rather expert job of making cannabis psychosis appear to be fact, when the evidence to support a causal link between cannabis use and psychosis, even as a contributory cause, remains entirely equivocal and open to interpretation.

Just last month, Glyn Lewis Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the University of Bristol,one of the world's leading experts on the subject, said "...there is no certainty of a causal relationship between cannabis use and psychosis".

The "six times higher" figure Mr. Walker uses does his case no favours, and such abuse of science and statistics has been summarily dealt with by Ben Goldacre in his Bad Science series. I refer you to "Cherry picking data to prove a point about cannabis" in The Guardian, Saturday 24 March 2007 and to his other piece "Blah blah cannabis blah blah blah" in The Guardian Saturday, July 28 2007.

Ironically, there are accurate figures available that do show a very real increase in cannabis potency in the UK from around 1995 - 2005, when the strength of typical UK cannabis roughly doubled.

"Potency of D9-THC and Other Cannabinoids in Cannabis in England in 2005: Implications for Psychoactivity and Pharmacology" by Potter, Clark and Brown shows that from 1995 to 2005 typical cannabis potency roughly doubled to just over 13%THC.

On the basis of this, Potter et all speculated that there may be worrying implications, a possible psychosis epidemic may be on the cards due to the rise of the new "skunk" cannabis.

Fortunately the period of 1996 - 2005 was also covered in a study commissioned by the ACMD: "Assessing the impact of cannabis use on trends in diagnosed schizophrenia in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2005" by the Department of Medicines Management, Keele University,

The study found looked at the General Practice Research Database (GPRD) "for 183 practices in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The study cohort comprised almost 600,000 patients each year, representing approximately 2.3% of the UK population aged 16 to 44."

The study concluded that:

"Between 1996 and 2005 the incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia and psychoses were either stable or declining... ...this study did not find any evidence of increasing schizophrenia or psychoses in the general population from 1996 to 2005."

In the same decade that cannabis strength doubled, psychosis levels either stabilised or declined.

But we could be charitable, we could allow Mr. Walker the possibility that cannabis may cause psychosis. Does this constitute a sound reason for continuing with current prohibitionist policy - under which cannabis potency has doubled in ten years? Alcohol prohibition in the USA saw the rise of distilled alcohol, and cannabis prohibition in the UK has seen the rise of double potency skunk cannabis.

The UN's own figures show that the cannabis use grew by 8.5% worldwide from 1998 - 2008.

Prohibition is not a rational drug control policy. If anything, prohibition appears to be "pro drugs" and "pro cannabis", stimulating cannabis potency and stimulating drug use.

Prohibition doesn't result in the ever-decreasing market in cannabis that its advocates think and claim it does. In fact, it does the opposite. Opium use rose by 35% and cocaine use by 27% over the same ten year period up to 2008, according to the UN.

The consequences of cannabis prohibition, indirect and direct, are tragic - mass incarceration and tens of thousands dead each year.

60% of the Mexican cartels' income comes from cannabis. 34, 612 deaths occurred in the Mexican drug wars in the four years up to Jan 2011, mostly murders in gang competition over supply routes to the US. There are around 350,000 people in prison in the US for breaking drugs laws. Another 10,000 or more US citizens are estimated by the eminent economist Milton Friedman to die each year due to prohibition.

It's time to stop painting this discussion as People Who Like Drugs vs. People Who Don't Like Drugs.

Prohibition's days are numbered because prohibition has been shown unequivocally to be failure. Enough of the panic-mongering and hysteria, we need a rational and compassionate drug policy

jim l
Posted on 10 Jun 2011 3:59 pm (Report this annotation)

Thank you Charles Walker !!!...,

You have just made the most AMAZING water tight case for the need for REAL EDUCATION, regulation and stringent control of cannabis.

Well done.., and thank you for the misinformation, it has been duly noted.

Brian Colquhoun
Posted on 11 Jun 2011 8:48 pm (Report this annotation)

If anyone is getting a headache or sore eyes from reading this drivel may I suggest injecting street heroin rather than using paracetamol. Paracetamol actually kills more people every year than street heroin. Not only will you no longer suffer a headache or sore eyes but you will no longer feel your limbs never mind your head and if you do end up addicted remember there is always methadone, the days of selling all your prized belongings are gone for good. And as a bonus due to the coalition government really looking after the nhs your chances of surviving anthrax are better than they have ever been!

I hope he reads this statement out in parliament next time, to be honest it probably makes as much sense if not more!

Desmond Humphrey
Posted on 11 Jun 2011 10:19 pm (Report this annotation)

we are talking about the young kids of the UK being able to get there hands on street cannabis from criminal street dealers, dealers who only ask for your ten pound note as a form of ID, dealers who dont give a damn how old there customers are, dont give a damn what the quality of the cannabis is, dont give damn about the back round of the customer, the reason this is happening is bacause we have a government who dont give a damn about our kids of the UK, if they did there would be a tax and regulated system put in place just like tobacco and alcohol which in turn would offer greater protection to the young kids of the UK, until a system like this is put in place I'm afraid cannabis will be dealt to any person with a ten pound note as a form of ID.

Brian Colquhoun
Posted on 11 Jun 2011 11:08 pm (Report this annotation)

You forgot to add about the healing power of cocaine Desmond, as far as I can make out from this morons statement if all the kids turn to cocaine all these problems will be solved children won't even touch ciggies never mind that evil cannabis stuff. Can't you imagine the potential? All these kids will grow into adults with ruined noses, no longer will they be able to smell the utter shit these politicians spout day after day!!

Jayelle Farmer
Posted on 13 Jun 2011 3:08 am (Report this annotation)

It is absolutely preposterous for an MP to admit to a lack of medical qualification concerning cannabis and then to launch into a tirade of biassed medically-unsubstantiated rhetoric.

Here are some authoritative comments and links on medical research results concerning cannabis and any possible connection to schizophrenia.

Page 13: "In addition, all of the schizophrenic subjects had been treated with anti- psychotic drugs, so it is possible that the changes in CB1 receptors we have measured in schizophrenia are due to the effects of such treatment."

"Conclusions Neither CNR1 nor CHRNA7 variation appears to alter the risk of schizophrenia. Furthermore, our results do not support the presence of different effects of cannabis use on schizophrenia according to variation within COMT."

"Interestingly, they also failed to find a previously reported association between cannabis use and the catechol-O-methyl- transferase (COMT) gene. They suggest that cannabis use is not associated with the ValMet COMT allele, and they do not find evidence of a gene–environment interaction between the COMT genotype and cannabis use exerting an effect on developing schizophrenia."

"Causal effects of cannabis cannot be established from this study, and it would not be possible to establish causality from any observational study. However, the re- sults clearly show that cannabis-induced psychoses do not occur randomly. Rather, the degree of hereditary pre- disposition in individuals who receive treatment of can- nabis-induced psychosis closely mirrors that in those who develop schizophrenia with no history of cannabis- induced psychosis. The results agree with those of other studies that show that cannabis predominantly causes psy- chotic symptoms in those persons who are predisposed to develop psychosis or show signs of psychosis in the absence of cannabis use."

2008 American Medical Association

Instead of spending so much time trying to keep cannabis in prohibition, it might be helpful if MPs would take the stand to expound on all the stories of the tens of thousands of teenage lives that have been ruined - and continue to be ruined - by alcohol abuse - AND WHY ALCOHOL IS NOT CLASSED UNDER THE MoDA 1971.

The British public are sick and tired of excuses for keeping cannabis in prohibition, - excuses that are made on the grounds of unproven "medical statements", on the grounds of the personal morality of MPs and on the so-called "grounds" of the historical and cultural acceptability of alcohol use in society.

When it comes to drugs, there ought to be only ONE criteria in the determination of drug classification - HARM ASSESSMENT THAT IS PERFORMED AND SUBSTANTIATED BY TRUE AND INDEPENDENT MEDICAL RESEARCH.