It is impossible to imagine the grieving any parent must endure when they lose a son or daughter in tragic circumstances. To lose two is just too unbearable to contemplate.
It was reported on Sunday that Lord Monson is now mourning the loss of a second son, Rupert, who died after an attempted suicide last month. Five years ago, the author and peer’s older son Alexander Monson, 28, died from what the family believe was a beating in police custody in Kenya in 2012. Monson claims Rupert had been addicted to a form of cannabis, popularly known as ‘skunk’, which contains high levels of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). According to The Sunday Times, he died on 23 January after spending five days on life support after he had attempted suicide at home in Surrey.
The tragic reality of this form of problematic cannabis use is that it can all too easily fall through the cracks of publicly available treatment. Green had previously been sectioned under the Mental Health Act because of his cannabis addiction.
People who need comprehensive help to tackle their problematic cannabis use will continue to be left in the hands of the criminals operating in a illegal, unregulated market around the drug, with severe consequences, unless politicians are willing to confront the realities of its use.
With more people than ever seeking help for problems associated with cannabis use I have today published a report – Black Sheep – for the think tank Volteface which is calling for a legal, regulated cannabis market.
Legalising the use of cannabis would radically help increase the visibility of people experiencing problems with their cannabis use, allowing professionals to offer advice and recognise the signs of dependency in those presenting for purchase, and better signpost people to the appropriate level of treatment available – all helping to end the social stigma around cannabis use which so often acts as a barrier to problematic users seeking help.
But, even if people whose cannabis use had become a problem were more visible and it was easier to direct them to the help they require, cannabis remains a neglected drug in the UK’s public health discourse, resulting in limited support and guidance. The disparity in how it is prioritised by drug and alcohol providers, wider community services, local authority commissioners and public health bodies is effecting the quality of the help available.
Lord Monson is now calling for a “war on skunk” – one of the most easily available strains of cannabis whose potency has been linked to the development of dependency. His belief that cannabis users will be safer if varieties of cannabis are made legal – on par with how people are free to choose the type of alcohol they want to consume – reflects the more realistic and nuanced approach required to prevent any more victims dying in the tragic circumstances of his son.
Symptoms of problematic cannabis use can include mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, panic, depersonalisation or the exacerbation of an underlying mental health condition. Problems with concentration while studying, with employment or relationships or difficulties stopping or reducing cannabis use can also be indicators of a problematic relationship with the drug.
Volteface’s report reveals how, among people showing signs of cannabis dependence, only 14.6% have ever received treatment, help or support, and only 5.5% having received this within the last six months. Crack, cocaine and amphetamine users are also all more likely than cannabis users to have reduced their use after six months of treatment.By the nature of its illegality, cannabis users are a hidden population – a major problem in trying to target those within this group most in need of help. As one practitioner told me while researching Black Sheep:
“We’re just fumbling around in the dark trying to find them”.
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While cannabis remains in an illegal, underground, unregulated market, advice and support can’t be targeted towards users, many of whom remain unaware of the adverse effects caused by too much of the drug or the help they can access if their use becomes a problem.
Unlike with alcohol and tobacco, the same public health messaging and product regulation is absent around cannabis, meaning users are left without crucial information to make sensible decisions on their consumption habits, such as what, when, and how much to consume.
Here in the UK, dealers certainly don’t restrict the amount of cannabis their customers can buy or ask for ID, whereas in places that have introduced regulation, such as Colorado, strict limits exist on the quantity that can be bought, and who can buy it. Whereas alcohol and cigarettes are packaged in ways that contain information about their ingredients and usage warnings, people are not really aware of what they are buying when cannabis is handed over to them.
In Black Sheep, I make the urgent and vital case for the government to regulate cannabis, so it can be purchased in a controlled environment from licensed vendors, who can offer advice, recognise problematic use, and provide direction to services that can help those in need. By investing in research to learn more about the social costs of problematic cannabis use, Public Health England could provide the justification commissioners require to appropriately prioritise cannabis within treatment, and create innovations targeted at helping people experiencing problematic use.
Crucially, a move towards a regulated market would establish a dialogue with people who experience problems with their cannabis use, offering opportunities for harm reduction advice to be delivered at the point of sale and users in need of support being linked into reformed public health measures. From this would also emerge wider opportunities for more public guidance, packaging controls, products of lower potency, and research into cannabis culture and consumption to improve interventions with vulnerable users and reduce the stigma currently stopping them from accessing services.
The worrying number of people who are currently outside of guidance and support – who desperately need empathy and help but are too often on the receiving end of stigma and neglected by any kind of support – must be targeted to help turn their lives around.