PREDICTABLY, the new Home Secretary Priti Patel has been accused of being ‘out of touch’ over her welcome new commitment to a zero tolerance approach to drug use after years of de facto decriminalisation – a ‘turning a blind eye’ policy.
Those genuinely concerned to eradicate the scourge of drugs that has afflicted so many children and corrupted so many communities however have greeted her comments with a sigh of relief.
For such a policy to work it also needs to be backed by a proper programme of prevention and education, meaning scientifically based drugs education in schools in place of the disastrous current ‘informed choice’ harm reduction approach, especially essential in the section which focuses on teens’ drug of choice, cannabis.
In my experience as a biology teacher, I found the best way to make an impression on both children and adults, and to prevent them from starting to take the drug in the first place, was to provide a simple scientific explanation of how cannabis causes its damage. Not only did my grammar-school boys express their appreciation of this approach, so did their parents. I have had the same reaction following the talks I have given to youth clubs, to staff in schools around the country and perhaps, most movingly of all, to deeply drug-damaged young men, in rehabilitation, in recovery from their addiction. Why, they asked me, in all the lessons at school had no one ever informed them of these scientific facts, especially the way cannabis impacts on the brain and mental functioning? Why hadn’t they been told what they would be doing to themselves, the results of which they were suffering?
None was aware before beginning their cannabis careers that when the cannabinoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient giving the ‘high’ in cannabis, enters the brain, it sets in motion a chain of reactions that are inevitable, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Nor, despite using the drug for years, were they even familiar with the terminology. They were totally ignorant about both the drug and what it was doing and had done to them.
I found that simply telling people that cannabis can cause addiction and psychosis, affect learning and memory and cause vehicle accidents was not enough. They needed to understand the biology and the chemistry and the factual results and conclusions of an ever-growing body of confirmatory scientific research that cannot be disputed.
I have yet to hear other teachers, policy advisers or even drug treatment counsellors adopt this ‘explain the science’ tactic in public, when to me it is sheer common sense.
Would members of the general public, parents and politicians still be perfectly happy to see cannabis legalised – and therefore more available for their children’s use – if they knew these infrequently shared facts?
When a joint is smoked, THC immediately enters the brain and takes control, replacing anandamide, one of the most important neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry messages from cell to cell). This controls by suppression the levels of other neurotransmitters all carrying differing instructions. Unfortunately the fat-soluble THC is many times stronger than anandamide and stays for weeks in the brain cells still exerting its influence. There are no enzymes to break it down. This ‘dumbing down’ of the brain’s activities has various damaging results.
These include messages carried to the hippocampus, the centre of learning and memory. These messages fail to reach its cells; some die and the hippocampus shrinks. Learning and memory are badly affected and grades fall. No wonder they call it ‘dope’. Reaction times are slowed, so driving accidents, including fatalities, result. The supply of serotonin, our ‘happiness’ neurotransmitter, decreases and depression can set in, sometimes leading to suicide.
In mental illnesses such as psychosis, schizophrenia and paranoia which can sometimes result in violence or murder, the mechanism is the same but slightly more complex. THC first suppresses GABA, an inhibiting neurotransmitter which normally depresses dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) so dopamine surges. Excess dopamine is found in the brains of people with psychosis and schizophrenia. It is widely thought that genetic vulnerability plays a part in some cases of schizophrenia. Many cases of violence and homicide are increasingly linked to the use of cannabis by the perpetrator.
Why cannabis is addictive: If a person stops using the drug, the anandamide receptor sites on the cells are left empty. This gives the withdrawal experience with all its nasty consequences: irritability, anxiety, restlessness, sleep problems, depression etc. The body needs time to resume its production of anandamide. According to addiction specialists, teenage cannabis addiction has proved to be the most challenging to treat; even more worrying, the addiction rate with teenage users has been found to be one in six, as opposed to one in ten of adults.
Rarely mentioned but surely the most disastrous effect of cannabis is that THC affects DNA (our genetic code – the instructions for life). Astonishingly this has been known (but not disseminated) since the nineties when it was found that new cells being made in an adult body (sperm, foetal and white blood cells) were fewer as ‘apoptosis’ (programmed cell death) occurred prematurely. Impotence and infertility have been documented and the immune system is impaired.
More recently it has been found that THC disrupts cell division. The strands required to pull apart the chromosomes to form the new cells fail to form properly so the chromosomes are unable to separate correctly. They may break up and re-join haphazardly, causing genetic mutations that can be very harmful and frequently fatal to the dividing cells.
The resulting foetal defects can be varied and include gastroschisis (when a baby is born with its intestines outside the body), which disturbingly appears now to be rising in the geographic areas where cannabis has been legalised either fully or for so-called medical purposes. A critical paper is available here. Anencephaly (absence of brain parts) and shortened limbs also appear to be associated. Oncogenes (genes that cause cancer) can be switched on. Bladder, testicle and childhood cancers such as neuroblastoma have all been reported. The DNA in mitochondria (energy producers in cells) can be damaged.
An article I wrote for Writeyou in 2016 details all these harms and the scientific evidence for them. Every parent and teacher should read it, because those desirous of legalising cannabis need to be challenged. They need to be asked if they are cognisant of the science, of the facts. Ten to one they are not.
I would like to know what the MPs David Lammy, Jonathan Djanogly and Sir Norman Lamb would say in answer if asked whether they were cognisant with the science. Yes or no?
Mary Brett’s report, Cannabis: A survey of its harmful effects, can be downloaded from the CANNABIS SKUNK SENSE website.