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By Catherine Monk for SPIRE

It will come as no surprise to most people to discover that cannabis is the most widely used drug in the western world. What may come as a surprise, however, is to learn that smoking cannabis is one of the main factors in developing a mental illness. Many people see smoking the odd joint as a relatively harmless thing to do, indeed many do not even see it as a drug. Psychiatric nurses would argue against this passionately. The young men they see coming through the doors of the acute psychiatric services, terrified, hiding in corners, seeing giant monsters and their own personal demons is a common sight. You would think that these people have a history of mental illness, that they are chronic drug users and schizophrenics. Sadly this is not always the case. In too many cases, just one joint is enough to cause drug induced psychosis and other mental illnesses.

The Facts About Cannabis

Dr Brian Boettcher, a consultant psychiatrist who specialises in drug induced mental illness, states that it would be a big mistake to categorise marijuana as a 'soft' option. The active ingredient in cannabis that has a direct effect upon the brain is called Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The more THC there is in the substance, whether the synthetic or herbal product, the higher the risk of severe, and unpleasant, effects on the brain. Whilst for some users cannabis produces nothing more than a pleasant, sleepy and mildly euphoric experience, for others the effects can be devastating.

A recent influx of a type of cannabis called sinsemilla that has flooded the country contains
2-3 times more THC than usual types of cannabis. These levels of THC can damage the synapses in the brain, making it difficult for messages to be passed along through the brains nervous system. Drug induced psychosis is a frightening experience and is categorized by the international classification of disease as a severe mental health problem with a number of symptoms and a variety of outcomes.

How Common is Drug Induced Psychosis

It is difficult to get an accurate picture of the scale of the problem of drug induced psychosis (DIP). Anecdotal evidence would appear to be at variance with the few statistics that there are regarding DIP. In England it was estimated that 19.1 % of admissions to the psychiatric services in March 2006 were related to drug induced psychosis, whereas staff in some adult acute admissions would put the number at much higher. Part of the problem is that many people do not admit having taken drugs due to fears of police involvement or, more commonly, they do not mention cannabis as it does not occur to people that it could cause such harm. This means the official numbers are perhaps not a true reflection of the reality.
What is not in question, however, is that taking cannabis can cause drug induced psychosis.

Short term prognosis and symptoms of Drug Induced Psychosis

The symptoms of psychosis are painful to witness, and terrifying to experience. They involve visual hallucinations (usually of a frightening or violent nature), auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), Depersonalisation (the belief that you are another person other than yourself), anxiety, paranoia, violent feelings and an inexplicable feeling of fear. Often people have no memory of what they did, or experienced during their psychosis. People have described it as losing a part of themselves.

Cannabis stays in the system longer than most drugs as, according to the Royal College of psychiatrists, more than 50% of the drug absorbed in the blood is stored in the body's fatty tissue. The brain, however, clears itself of the drug sooner than this. The short term prognosis is good as, once treated with an antipsychotic such as Olanzapine, Chlorpromazine, Risperidone or Haliperidol, individuals can return to full health. What is most concerning is what damage has been done in the mean time.

Long Term Prognosis

There is a proven link between the chronic use of cannabis and the development of schizophrenia, sometimes years later. A study done in Britain in 2009 showed that a third of those admitted to acute psychiatric units with drug induced psychosis later went on to develop Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is an incurable and chronic illness that causes the sufferer to lose touch with reality. Sufferers experience a variety of symptoms including hallucinations and chronic and fixed delusions. The illness also causes people to
become extremely depressed, failing to take an interest in any thing around them. They are often viewed as 'odd' as those around them. Most worryingly is the fact that the highest suicide rates are amongst young, male schizophrenics. Many people suffering are unable to work and, despite treatment; do not enjoy a high quality of life.

The Cognitive Impact of Taking Cannabis

The royal college of psychiatry states that there is irrefutable evidence that long term cannabis use causes a decline in cognitive function. The evidence shows that, over time, an individual’s ability and motivation to concentrate and to learn and to retain information is seriously compromised. This is due to the erosion of the neurons in the brain vital to passing on information that have been interrupted by cannabis use. This is of particular impact and concern in adolescence.

Addiction and getting help

Contrary to common belief, cannabis is addictive and the withdrawal symptoms can be hard to deal with. They include irritability, mood changes, appetite disturbance, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, sweating and diarrhoea. Thankfully these symptoms only last a week or so, however if you are finding it difficult to come off cannabis, go to your doctor. No doctor will report you to the police or any other authority if you are going to them for help. The oath that they are bound by prevents them from doing this.

If you are still unsure about going to a doctor, there are a number of help lines you can contact to discuss the feelings you are experiencing. These phone lines are confidential.

Cannabis can ruin lives as it not only affects the individual but those around them. Giving up cannabis could save you from serious mental health problems later in life, indeed the next joint you smoke may land you in hospital. You have to ask yourself if it's worth the risk?

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