The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland has warned that the availability of increasingly potent cannabis combined with a widespread “misconception” that the drug is harmless poses the “gravest threat” to the mental health of young people in Ireland.
The college, which represents 1,000 psychiatrists across the country, has launched two new information leaflets on cannabis to debunk the perception that the illegal substance is relatively harmless.
A public-facing leaflet, ‘Cannabis and your Mental Health’, examines cannabis use in Ireland, its general risks, and its effects on mental health and a leaflet is also being launched for medical professionals.
Cannabis use can lead to mental health issues, including psychosis, depression, anxiety disorders, and self-harm and suicidal behaviour.
Psychiatrists have warned that the number of psychiatric and general hospital admissions among young people with a cannabis-related diagnosis has increased sharply since more potent versions of the drug became available in recent years.
Cannabis-related psychiatric admissions across all age groups have increased by 250% since 2007, with the highest number of admissions — over 300 — being recorded in 2019.
Cannabis also accounted for the largest number of drug-related admissions to general hospitals among young people under the age of 25 in 2019.
In Ireland, cannabis is the most commonly used substance by young adults, aged 18-24 years, accessing addiction treatment, even more common than alcohol.
A European study also estimated that 3,700 Irish teens, aged 16 years, had a cannabis use disorder in 2019.
The rising levels of potency in the psychoactive substance THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) found in cannabis is of particular concern, having increased from around 6% in 2000 to 16% in more recently seized samples of the drug.
President of the College of Psychiatrists, Dr William Flannery, said cannabis represented the “gravest threat” to the mental health of young people today and was by far the most widely used illegal drug in the country.
“We know that its potency has spiked in recent years, leading to a significant rise in hospital admissions among young people with a cannabis-related diagnosis. However, despite this there is still a general feeling among the public that the drug is mostly harmless. This conception needs to be challenged at every turn because psychiatric services are under huge pressure due to this problem,” the addiction psychiatrist said.
Dr Gerry McCarney, a psychiatrist specialising in child and adolescent addiction, said the risks posed by the increasingly potent drug could not be overstated and there was a “misconception” that the drug was relatively harmless.
The drug, he said, had the potential to cause “huge damage” when the brain is still developing in teenagers right up to the age of 25.
The Dublin-based clinician said children were starting to use cannabis at 12 and 14 years of age, sometimes younger, and then presenting with mental health problems at 15 and 16 years of age or later and its use was evident across all classes of society.
“This can result in frequent presentations in low mood, suicidal ideation, increasing self-harm, anxiety disorders, clinical depression and for a smaller number, increasing paranoia and significant psychotic symptoms,” he added.
Cannabis with more than 10% THC is considered to be ‘high potency’ and is having a more damaging effect, he said: “This has a more damaging impact on day to day functioning and also over time it can have a really damaging impact on mental health.” He added it was “worrying” that clinicians were also now seeing the use of other products containing potent cannabis oil, such as cannabis ‘edibles’ or sweets and ‘shatter’, a crystallised form of cannabis oil.
Dr McCarney stressed that medicinally available cannabis was a “different animal” to the highly potent versions of cannabis available on the street.
Where some jurisdictions had liberalised the use and availability of cannabis, deregulation had increased dependence problems and did not put an end to a black market for the drug, he said.
“We are calling on the Government to conduct an urgent review of cannabis use in Ireland and its related harms, as well as initiating a comprehensive public awareness campaign on the dangers of the drug,” Dr McCarney said.