Research backs dope crackdown

20 May 2009

By The Record

Former AMA WA president points to damning research.

Dr Paul Skerritt

By Anthony Barich

Drug Free Australia has launched a “scholarly” research paper on the link between cannabis use and mental health just as WA Attorney General Christian Porter is drawing up legislation to repeal the previous Labor government’s drug laws.
Independent Janet Woolard MLA, Liberal MLAs Michael Sutherland, Peter Britza and Peter Abetz and representatives from drug prevention, management and support groups were present as the report was launched by prominent psychiatrist and former Australian Medical Association WA president Dr Paul Skerritt at Parliament House on May 8.
The report, called Cannabis – suicide, schizophrenia and other ill-effects, contains 11 recommendations on how government can intervene effectively, including implementing preventative drug education in all States and territories and details how marijuana is a gateway drug to harder substances, leads to dependence and harms users’ mental health.
As per its election pledge in August last year, the West Australian government is planning to decrease the cannabis possession threshold by two thirds and ban the possession of cannabis plants for personal use, as legislation enacted under Labor allows up to 30 grams on one’s person and two plants to be grown for personal use.
The government also pledged to ban marijuana smoking implements and tools in a bid to repeal what it calls Labor’s “soft on drugs” stance.
Dr Skerritt, who is also on the Perth Archdiocesan Historical Commission having revealed a founding Perth bishop’s experience in medical practice, said that while the evidence “does seem to suggest that you need to have some sort of predisposition for you to develop a serious illness provoked by marijuana,” this argument is not valid.
He said that predispositions may not produce any symptoms until it’s provoked by some external factor, and said that schizophrenia and other mental conditions like bi-polar and general depression are “very closely related” to anxiety, an underestimated condition that is severe and debilitating.
Marijuana, he said, is a powerful factor in the provocation of mental illness and is a “very significant and expensive factor for the number of beds that are used (for those who use marijuana), who otherwise may be treated without admission”.
“It’s very common that people who have had their first panic attack to have it around the same time as they had their first exposure to marijuana, and then of course it sticks and it keeps going on and on,” he said.
He said that while the incidence of consumption of marijuana has gone down – due to the cost of alternatives and education – it is still widely used.
He said that harm reduction does not work as people may not know they have a predisposition to mental illness, while legislation has proved “phenomenally effective” in reducing smoking consumption from 68 per cent to 10 per cent, while putting cannabis on the same ‘legalised’ group as alcohol and tobacco, both legal drugs that have strong health costs, “has no logic at all”.
He said that attempts to tighten restrictions inevitably meet resistance, but also inevitably leads to a drop in the incidence of consumption. However, he said that completely criminalising cannabis, thereby “sending people to jail, is a very, very expensive way of making a problem worse, including drug problems. It’s of no benefit whatsoever”.
The merit of criminalisation was debated at the launch by a former drug dealer and addict now working for Teen Challenge, who said it would deter youth who have never tried it.
Though against criminalisation, Dr Skerritt said that the law must say that “these are very dangerous drugs and it’s in the interests of the community to lessen consumption. If we catch people with possession we need much greater education and better detoxification facilities for them”.
“Eliminate the word ‘criminalisation’ from the debate, but don’t send a message to the community that these are soft recreational drugs catering to a group of grown-up hippies from 40 years ago,” he said.
On June 2, DFA officials will meet with Minister for Health, Dr Graham Jacobs, who sent apologies for not attending the launch, to discuss the report’s contents.
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