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Mary Brett: Talk to Frank? Hardly any better than your friendly neighbourhood drug dealer


Last week Professor Wayne Hall’s review of the past two decades of research on the adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use was published. It rightly made the front page of the Daily Mail.

His findings, though uncompromising, came as no surprise to me.

They confirmed my own report I was commissioned to write by Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice Policy Review as far back as 2006, ‘Cannabis – a general view of its harmful effects’, which I have kept regularly updated since, available on the CanSS website  under ‘books’.

Hall’s conclusions, that cannabis use increases the risk of accidents, can produce dependence, and has consistent associations with poor psychosocial outcomes and mental health in adulthood, are far from original and are all already in the public domain. Not that you would know this from any government website.

That’s exactly why his warning, that the common view that cannabis is nothing to get worked up about needs to be challenged much more effectively, is so important and must be heeded.

It certainly needs directing at those in authority, those culprits in the Home Office and the Department of Education who have consistently treated cannabis casually and who inspired the Government’s misleadingly entitled drug advice and information service Talk to Frank.

Frank this service  is not.  It is puerile, inaccurate and irresponsible – yet its advice is what teachers, parents, drug workers as well as children are invited to rely upon.

Successive governments to their shame have refused to see the urgency of the need to change or correct it.

My attempts, over the years, have met with point bank resistance. Yet FRANK (which costs the taxpayer around £5m a year) has been in need of an overhaul since day one.

I met the FRANK team (in the House of Commons) in 2011 after the Coalition had published its revised drug strategy, to talk to them about a planned re-launch of the website. At the meeting and in subsequent correspondence, I explained the dangers of cannabis in detail, pointed out all the information on the site that was wrong, all that had been omitted and all that was badly out of date. I provided them with the corrections plus the necessary up to date, scientifically factual and accurate information. Indeed I did their work for them.

I thought the rationale and legality behind FRANK’s ‘tips’ to children ‘to reduce harm’ should be questioned. Surely, these constitute encouragement to use that is contrary to British law and to Article 33 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But when the revamped website appeared, with its ‘the highs, the lows and the everything in-between’ title page, little had changed.  Yes, though the ‘harm reduction’ advice that I thought acted as a green light to experiment was removed from the cannabis section, it was retained for for magic mushrooms and ecstasy! The site continued to reflect the ‘harm reduction’ ideology of the previous Blair and Brown governments, one that plays down the damaging effects of cannabis and is based on the erroneous but determinedly non-judgemental assumption that children will take drugs anyway. They will not. Only a minority do.

‘Informed choice’ – from the age of 7 – remained the underlying policy as in the Government’s drug, alcohol and tobacco education curriculum guidance for schools ( 2003 QCA/03/1031). The fact that children’s brains are too immature to make reasoned choices, never seemed to occur to these politically correct politicians and civil servants.

They did not like me challenging their views.

A very prickly correspondence followed with the civil servant head of the ‘non-judgemental’ FRANK team. I was assured that Professor Sir Robin Murray’s research into psychosis/schizophrenia (that I had pointed them to),  and had been taken into account.  They had used, they said, an Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report published in 2008 when the ‘pro cannabis’ Professor Nutt was its chair. But Murray’s crucial papers were published after that, in 2009.

I was  told by them there was no evidence of a gateway effect (though there is clear evidence) and that, ‘children would view the gateway theory as Government propaganda’.  I wonder whether they will revise their view now a senior addiction psychiatrist and advisor to WHO has said otherwise, that there is indeed a gateway effect?

They were not likely to have been told that by their chosen advisor  – the John Moores University in Liverpool – birthplace of harm reduction ideology – who they has commissioned to write: ‘A Summary of the Health Harms of Drugs’. (A member of the FRANK team was also conveniently one of its authors).

Critical information – like the persistence of THC in brain cells for weeks impairing the whole chemical messaging system, the virtual absence of CBD in skunk and evidence of permanent brain damage – were all completely ignored by and omitted from the John Moores report.

I found resistence to evidence about the real dangers of cannabis extended across Westminster.  Oral and written evidence about FRANK that I submitted to the  Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry did  not feature in their final report, HASC Drugs: Break the Cycle 2012: oral and written.

Written evidence I sent to the Education Department’s Consultation on PSHE June 2014 was similarly ignored.

It is hardly a surprise that the most serious factual error about cannabis strength is still on the FRANK website. It is the statement that: ‘Skunk is on average around 2-4 times stronger than the herbal cannabis that was used in the 1960s and through to the early 1990s’.

The correct information is that herbal cannabis from the 1960s to the 1990s had a THC content of around 1 per cent (UNODC figures).  The Home Office’s most recent 2008 potency study in 2008 showed ‘skunk’ (which now constitutes 80 per cent of the British market) to have an average 16.2 per cent of THC (the constituent that triggers psychosis). My maths makes it 16 times stronger.  The Dutch interestingly equate such levels to the class ‘A’ drugs, heroin and cocaine.

Nor on the FRANK site will you find any mention of the virtual absence of antipsychotic CBD in today’s skunk – the ingredient that helped balance the psychoactive THC ingredient in old herbal cannabis – so making today’s skunk even more powerful!

CBD, which is being tested for medical use in epilepsy etc,  doesn’t give the ‘high’ that people today seem to be looking for. The trouble is, with it gone, the THC is even more powerful as it’s not being counteracted by an antipsychotic.

Nor in FRANK do you find any information about persistence of cannabis in the body’s cells  (it metabolises slowly compared to alcohol and heroin); the loss of IQ points over time and impaired executive brain functioning; about its correlation with violence, with suicide; its immune system damage; its risk factor for heart attacks, strokes, permanent brain damage, deaths (from driving and cancers other than lung), male infertility, impotence, cognitive and behaviour problems in children born to using mothers, bronchitis or emphysema – all of which are in addition to its gateway effect.

What makes this misinformation and absence of information worse is that very many of the drug charities in the UK rely on the free FRANK literature and direct people to its site.

The Centre for Social Justice is to be applauded for criticising FRANK: ‘The futility of campaigns like FRANK has been demonstrated, yet the Government persists in championing this moribund ‘service’”.

Nor despite every effort to be ‘with it’, does the site appeal to children. A survey conducted by national treatment provider, Addaction, found that only one in ten children would call the ‘FRANK’ help-line to talk about drugs. No wonder.  You only have to look at FRANK’s pointless poster for skunk to see why .

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Mary Brett
Mary Brett
Mary Brett is chairman of the drugs prevention charity, Cannabis Skunk Sense

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