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mind blowing High-potency cannabis is causing a 'tsunami' of problems for Irish teens, a top doctor claims

Psychiatrist warns of huge debts run up by youngsters using high potency weed on tick every day

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Dr Bobby Smyth

Dr Bobby Smyth

Dr Bobby Smyth

A leading psychiatrist has warned of a tsunami of problems stemming from young addicts using high potency cannabis.

Across the world, cannabis is being de-criminalised and in some countries legalised, but HSE consultant psychiatrist Dr Bobby Smyth says that cannabis addiction in under 18s is snowballing, the potency has increased ten fold, and legalising it would further serve to normalise the drug.

In an interview for the Crime World podcast, Dr Smyth says that at the heart of the issue is the massive debts being run up by addicted teenagers, some with €50 a day habits.

While one in 80 young people admit using cannabis daily in Ireland, one in eight in Canada now say they do since the drug was legalised there less than three years ago.

Dr Smyth started his career with the HSE in 2003 when he was hired to deal with adolescent addictions in Ireland which, at the time, were still dominated largely by heroin but waned as the drug became less and less popular with young people.

Services once treated 200 child addicts a year but in 2021 zero kids presented with problem heroin use.

"What happened really was in the 1990s it wiped out a young age range. We had the youngest population in Europe and if you were 16 or 17 in 1995, 1996 or 1997 and living in certain areas you had a really good chance of being strung out on heroin by your 21st birthday," Dr Smyth said

"So, it was actually really, really young people who were becoming addicted to heroin. Some were a year or two from first use before they were in treatment.

"In the mid 1990s people weren't injecting, that had happened in the 1980s and had got a very bad name. That generation had discovered they could smoke it off foil and as a drug it had become normalised again.

"Smoking heroin introduced it to a new young generation of kids in communities. The problem is that the longer someone smokes, the more they need it and they were blindsided to the fact that they would ultimately start injecting it.

"Between 1996-1997 there were about 200 teenagers in heroin addiction being treated in Dublin alone but that dropped off to about 40 by 2003. That was a big fall off," says Dr Smyth.

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"I was employed at that point to treat all addiction and when I started the one I was most mindful of was alcohol, because there has obviously been a long standing problem with alcohol in Ireland.

"We also broadened the service to deal with other drugs as well. And really, from the outset when we began to develop those services, to broaden the focus away from heroin, hash was the dominant form of cannabis and accounted for maybe a third of referrals.

"Alcohol accounted for another third and the other third were a mix of substances like benzos and cocaine."

But according to Dr Smyth, at that point hash was mainly a low potency cannabis resin sold from a hard block in a 'ten or twenty spot' which was heated and crumbled into tobacco and smoked.

"The problems then weren't terribly severe by those presenting.

"It was maybe having some adverse mental health impact, parents or the young person would have felt they had lost control of their relationship with the drug, which they used to enjoy, or it was maybe having a negative effect on their focus or motivation.

"But they weren't high end or with complex problems," he said.

In the past decade, however, cannabis has evolved into a very highly-potent herbal substance and it has become far more difficult to source the milder 'hash'.

"The arrival of the herbal cannabis or 'weed' was coupled with the demise of hash. It is sold in 2 gramme bags and looks more like tobacco. It is often the buds that are sold and it has got really expensive," said Dr Smyth.

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Cannabis plantations discovered by police in Spain

Cannabis plantations discovered by police in Spain

Cannabis plantations discovered by police in Spain

"Young people are paying up to €50 for a bag and they are often using that amount in a day - that would tally with the spend on heroin addiction back in the worst of times.

"In our services, from around 2010, we started meeting kids who were smoking cannabis and spending a huge amount of money per week on their drug. The payment model is different.

"Many are allowed build up a debt which would never have been allowed with heroin.

"They can maybe build up €200 debt before that would be cleared and then quickly they'd be allowed build up €500 or €1,000.

"Indebtedness has actually become one of the primary reasons for demands from the service. I wish we were back with hash because hash was grand," he said.

'Weed', which is often marketed as organic, is actually grown in highly controlled conditions.

When the female cannabis plants flourish, with the male reduced, they produce a huge amount of THC, the active drug.

Grown in artificial light in liquid chemicals in grow houses, high potency plants are produced which are at least ten times stronger than hash.

"It's stronger so there is a more intense drug effect. Users are getting more stoned more easily.

"For people who enjoy that experience - and because it is more intense - they are more likely to return to it more frequently," says Dr Smyth.

"So, while the actual number of people using cannabis may not have increased that much over the last 20 or so years, it is that the minority that are using more regularly are using it more frequently.

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Cannabis seized by gardai with an estimated street value of €220,000

Cannabis seized by gardai with an estimated street value of €220,000

Cannabis seized by gardai with an estimated street value of €220,000

"They start feeling that need to be stoned, which is when you are moving into that addictive area. There are mental health impacts, like anxiety, which is very common.

"A lot of people report a lack of motivation, which is a bit like depression or feeling down. They are disengaging with others. Life gets a bit duller and emptier, leaving them more vulnerable to feel down," he said.

"In our age range - which is under 18 - cannabis is now the main drug that is causing the problems. Up to 70 per cent are now presenting with cannabis being the primary problem. And that reflects in the age range up to 25. After 25 years cocaine and alcohol begin to compete with it as drivers of demand," he said.

"Cannabis is certainly taken less seriously than other drugs across society.

"In Ireland, we almost have a situation where we have a de facto de-criminalisation of cannabis. But it is still prohibited to use and still hassle for a young person if they are found using.

"Canada formally legalised cannabis in 2018, for 10 years before that it was tolerated.

"Today, it has the highest daily use of cannabis in the world with one in every eight people saying they smoke every day. That compares to one in 80 here. With my public health hat on I just don't understand why we would be doing that or going down that road."

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