The HSE’s Youth Drug and Alcohol Service said that parents of these teenagers have on occasion paid out over €1,000 to drug dealers.
YoDA clinical nurse specialist Philip James was speaking at a conference about cannabis decriminalisation, organised by Community Awareness of Drugs.
The conference also heard from a former drugs adviser to three US presidents who warned that decriminalisation of cannabis was a “stepping stone” to full drug legalisation.
Two US states, Washington and Colorado, have legalised the sale and purchase of cannabis and other states may follow.
Mr James said the number of people aged under 18 coming to their service whose main drug of abuse was cannabis had increased from around 80 in 2012 to more than 90 in 2014.
This accounted for the bulk of all their drug treatment cases. The number of alcohol cases — the next- most abused drug — fell from 40 in 2012 to 25 in 2014.
“The cost of using it — and the fact it is available on credit — means that teenagers run up considerable debts,” Mr James said.
“This leads to threats, intimidation and various activities to try and pay for it.” He said clients suffer significant effects when they don’t have access to the drug — which can be taken out on those around them.
“When they don’t have cannabis and are going through withdrawals, clients are often very threatening and intimidating, particularly towards parents. Child to parent violence is common.”
He said they saw a range of disorders in their clients, with 73 suffering anxiety disorder; 58 experiencing deliberate self-harm; and 30 having mood disorders.
Mr James pointed out that there was a wide range of cannabis uses: Experimental; infrequent; regular; abuse, and dependent.
He said a harm reduction approach was key, along with counselling, family therapy, and psychiatric assessment.
He said they conducted a detailed analysis with eight young people attending treatment for cannabis. Five were male and three female, ranging in age from 15 to 18. Their first usage of cannabis ranged from age 11 to 15.
Almost all used daily, spending between €50 and more than €700 a week. Three of them spend more than €100 a day. Four of them admitted dealing the drug.
Mr James said cannabis was typically sold in €50 bags, compared to €20 for the average bag of heroin.
He said it was an “expensive” habit and that over time the affected teenager can end up getting €200 to €300 of the drug on loan.
“When they can’t pay, things come to a head,” he said. “We have met numerous families paying out €1,000-plus.”
Dr Kevin Sabet, a drugs adviser to presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama, cautioned Ireland against going down the decriminalisation route.
He said decriminalisation did not begin to address the complex social problems of addiction.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee is currently considering the Portuguese version of decriminalisation.
The committee this week heard presentations from a range of interested groups, including pro-decriminalisation organisations such as Ana Liffey Drug Project, Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign, Merchants Quay, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).
In its submission, Graham de Barra of SSDP said that three quarters of all drug offences in Ireland are for personal possession.
“We need to redistribute precious Garda resources and focus on hitting the real threats to society — criminal gangs,” he said. He praised the Portuguese model: “Portugal now has the lowest number of drug-related deaths in Europe at three per million per year. The figure in Ireland is 47, which is 15 times higher. Since decriminalisation, HIV rates in Portugal have halved.”