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Cannabis the BIG debate..

PUBLISHED: 15:17 04 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:40 16 August 2010

Danger?

Danger?

PAUL was first introduced to cannabis whilst working on a building site, at the age of 17. It was widely smoked on the party scene and he did not know it was dangerous. But in 1986, at the age of 26, he started self-harming and his schizophrenic delus

PAUL was first introduced to cannabis whilst working on a building site, at the age of 17. It was widely smoked on the party scene and he did not know it was dangerous.

But in 1986, at the age of 26, he started self-harming and his schizophrenic delusions began.

He was considered a risk to himself and others and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, for three months.

Now, aged 47, the father-of-one from Crystal Palace estimates he has been kept in mental health wards ten times since. He said: "Cannabis was widely available on the reggae party scene. I was doing what everyone else was doing. I was told by people that this is not what you should be doing but I was never sat down and told that this could be dangerous."

The softly spoken man believes that the drug which was deemed harmless enough to reclassify from C to B in 2004, has severely diminished his life chances.

He suffers from 'episodes' making him delusional or causing hallucinations such as objects suddenly changing colour. While his many siblings have successful careers, Paul is out of work and reliant on anti-psychotic medication. But despite his illness, he only stopped using cannabis about eight years ago.

He said: "I had lost interest in the drug as under the drug I am not the most confident person, I get paranoid.

"My brain just works overtime. It is quite scary, as from the first toke I would be in a different world.

"The whole world would change before my eyes. Everything would look different. I always had the fear before smoking that I would go into this trip.

"Its just one of those things, that some people smoke marijuana and they are fine and there are others that smoke it and it gives them psychotic problems and I am of the latter."

FROM C to B - FOR AND AGAINST

This issue of susceptibility seems to be the problem in the debate surrounding the reclassification of the drug.

Research conducted by Dr D'Souza in 2002, at the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in Camberwell, specifically linked the drug with triggering psychosis.

In time, articles started popping up telling stories of how high achievers started suffering serious mental health problems in their 20s - their dreams and careers seemingly annihilated all because they smoked a seemingly 'harmless' drug as teenagers.

It is within this context that the government first started muting the possibility of reclassification.

Now the road from C to B is a Commons' vote away, due next year. But the path the government chose was seriously questioned when they ignored their own independent advisory body on one crucial point.

At the end of their nine-month review last month (May 7), the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said reclassifying cannabis would not hinder its widespread abuse.

They recommended by 20 votes to three that cannabis remain a class C drug.

Chairman of the ACMD Professor Sir Michael Rawlins said reclassification "is neither warranted, nor will it achieve its desired effect".

They also said evidence of a substantial link with mental illness remains weak.

But Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the Commons she "is not prepared to 'wait and see." She added: "There is a compelling case to act now rather than risk the future of young people.

"Where there is a clear and serious problem, but doubt about the harm that will be caused, we must err on the side of caution and protect the public. I make no apology for that."

Both Paul and his mental health worker Mark McManus believe education is key to dealing with mental health problems.

Mr McManus who is Team Manager for Bromley's Assertive Community Team, Penge said: "People need support and treatment. They are being punished for doing it to themselves. What is being done about the huge drinking culture? Alcohol is more prevalent in society and more likely to cause damage than cannabis. Cannabis is being synthesised so that it is more powerful. Certainly in our team we see a lot more young males around the age of 19 using our services, with schizophrenic type symptoms."

With the widespread use of the drug and the increasing potency, the NHS has changed to handle 'substance users'.

This has been the way Paul was treated by Bexley and Bromley's Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust and as Mr McManus puts it, "he is one of the success stories".

marina.soteriou@archant.co.uk

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