Despite the predictable backlash, an Irish awareness campaign was right
The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, the professional body for psychiatrists in the Republic of Ireland, recently launched an information campaign across various media platforms. It was part of an effort to raise awareness about the harms of cannabis use, with a particular emphasis upon the harms associated with cannabis use among young people. Predictably, the College faced a backlash from activists who wish to see cannabis legalised, and who believe that the College is involved in fomenting a reefer madness-style moral panic about a drug which they view as potentially therapeutic.
The college makes two main claims. The first is that cannabis use is potentially harmful, especially among young people. This should not be seen as particularly controversial. There is ample research to show that cannabis use is linked to psychiatric problems including self-harm, suicide, and psychosis. Moreover, the evidence available indicates that the younger the user and more frequent the usage, the more harmful cannabis use can be.
The college also claims that the public conversation around cannabis use minimises and obscures those risks. This is harder to substantiate, but also, I think, true. Speaking from my own experience as a psychiatric nurse, I can vouch for the frustration that is felt on the part of the College of Psychiatrists. The link between cannabis use and mental illness is no secret among us mental health professionals. We have all watched successful professionals become homeless schizophrenics — a process often fuelled by cannabis abuse. Disseminating that knowledge to the public in the face of a culture which consistently promotes the idea that cannabis is not only harmless but also therapeutic is extremely challenging.
Serious and enduring mental illness still remains shrouded in mystery for most people, despite relentless awareness campaigns about “mental health”. The ambient normalisation of substance use in the wider culture makes the job of explaining the link between these types of illnesses and cannabis use that much harder.
That’s why I would like to see more mental health professionals combining their experience with their professional knowledge of the most up-to-date clinical research to challenge the normalisation of cannabis use (and the corollary minimisation of its harms). The public needs to be warned about the potential dangers related to any move to legalise cannabis for recreational use (and the likely commercialisation of this new consumer product), before it’s too late.
Peter Hurst is a psychiatric nurse and political blogger based in Liverpool. He tweets @Post_Liberal