‘Cannabis not as harmful as alcohol’

Two GPs who treat young people for drug addiction believe cannabis use should be decriminalised for both recreational and medicinal use and regulated rather than outlawed.

‘Cannabis not as harmful as alcohol’

Cathal Ó Súilliobháin, a Dublin-based GP who has worked in addiction services for 20 years, said the “major negative” of using cannabis “is getting caught”.

“The majority of people who use cannabis have no [health] problem,” he said. “Nobody has ever died from cannabis use,” he said, adding that it was “much less harmful” than alcohol.

Dr Ó Súilliobháin said he had “kids coming to me, usually with parents, and the problem is not the drug itself, but a problem with the family, with school, with the law”.

Dr Ó Súilliobháin said young people were getting convictions for using cannabis that were ruining their lives.

Garrett McGovern, a GP in addiction services in Dundrum, said that if cannabis was regulated rather than decriminalised, it would facilitate research on its effects.

“If you regulate a drug, you can study it with a greater degree of accuracy,” Dr McGovern said.

Both doctors were proposing a motion at the Irish Medical Organisation’s AGM in Co Kildare, calling on James Reilly, the health minister, to establish an expert committee to examine the effects, “both positive and negative” of cannabis use and production in Ireland “in order to help eliminate the illicit trade in psychoactive substances”.

Dr Ó Súilliobháin said there was no point in proposing a motion calling for the decriminalising of cannabis use, because a trade union of doctors would never support it.

Both doctors said the reaction in the Dáil last year to a bill to regulate cannabis and allow its sale was “absurd”.

Dr O Súilliobháin said that Dr Reilly’s comments at the time would not have been out of place in Reefer Madness, a 1930s anti-marijuana propaganda movie.

Dr Reilly linked cannabis use with schizophrenia, which Dr McGovern said was “frankly absurd”.

He said that, during his time as a medical student in the 1970s, there was “a significant number of people rolling spliffs up the back of the classroom” in the Royal College of Surgeons.

The two doctors’ motion was carried.

Meanwhile, Consultant psychiatrist Siobhán Barry proposed a motion calling on Dr Reilly to set a timeframe to address the lack of appropriate treatment facilities for those with alcohol and benzodiazepine dependency.

Dr Barry said “benzos” used, inter alia, to treat anxiety and insomnia were not just freely available on the internet but often on offer “over the garden wall”.

“In South Co Dublin where I work, you can get them from your neighbour over the back garden wall,” she said.

“It’s quite amazing the way people will use somebody else’s [benzos].”

“This is what my patients are telling me. I would say that’s a proxy for most of the country,” Dr Barry said. “People think nothing of it.

They take benzos for going on an aeroplane. They find it comforting. They take it again,” she said. “It goes all the way down to desperate housewives.”

What people failed to consider was the effects of benzos: They raised sedation in older people, heightening the risk of falls, and, in younger people, affected capacity to learn and form memories.

They also led to a “significant level of disinhibition” and were potentially addictive.

Dr Barry said most addiction services had been developed to treat opiate users but more facilities were needed to treat benzo dependency.

Dr Ó Súilliobháin said benzo dependency was “a fairly neglected area “and that more needed to be done to address it within a primary care setting.

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