Expert warns against liberal drug laws; Softer legislation would ‘more than likely’ increase health problems

A child psychiatrist and drug addiction expert has warned the State against decriminalising the possession of cannabis, or any drugs, for personal use.

Dr Bobby Smyth, who works with teenagers who have problem drug-use, spoke as a high-level State working group is due this month to report to the Government on the issue.

Dr Smyth told the Irish Examiner that all the risks associated with liberalising drug laws “were on the downside”.

He said public attitudes towards cannabis had “softened” at a time when the harm caused by it had “exacerbated”. He said that was reflected in sharp rises in treatment figures.

An analysis of new cases (the best indicator of current trends) for the treatment of cannabis as a main problem drug, gathered by the Health Research Board, shows:

An 81% rise in cases among those under the age of 18, from 216, in 2006, to 391, in 2016;

An 85% jump among those aged 18-24 year olds, from 344 to 635;

A 50% increase among 25-34 year olds, from 187 to 280;

A 76% rise among all age groups, from 813 to 1,452.

Dr Smyth, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist in the HSE’s Adolescent Addiction Service, said the decriminalisation of possession of cannabis for personal use would “more than likely” increase health problems. He said that studies on the impact of decriminalisation indicated that in half the countries there was no change, but that in the other half there was an increase in usage.

“Most teenagers do factor in the consequence of use,” he said. “My belief is that this would cause some kids on the borderline of using or not using, or who have tried and are deciding whether or not to continue, that the impact of removing criminal sanction would nudge them towards use.”

He said this would also apply to teenagers who had decided not to use only because it was a criminal offence. “All of this would have the effect of pushing up prevalence and the inevitable result is an increase in the number of teenagers addicted to cannabis and developing mental health problems,” he said. “All the risks are on the downside. More than likely, it will increase health problems and, as a doctor, I have huge difficulty supporting something that would increase health problems.”

He said concerns over societal harm caused by criminalisation could be dealt with by other measures, such as erasing criminal convictions after a period of time. Dr Smyth said the campaign for decriminalisation and for medical marijuana had made people “confused” and had “fuelled misunderstanding” of the dangers of the drug.

“Public attitudes have softened, at a time when the harm has exacerbated,” he said, adding that his experience with young people was that cannabis was “the only drug that, routinely, young people demonstrate classic addiction patterns”.

He said this included use “first thing in the morning and last thing at night” and where the young person is “very distressed” if he doesn’t have it.

“No-one is talking about it,” he said. “The public is completely misinformed and politicians are actively ignoring it.”

Last week, Amnesty joined community and voluntary organisations in the #SaferFromHarm campaign, in calling for the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use.

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