Cannabis is the "gravest threat" to the mental health of young people in Ireland, a psychiatrists' group has warned, with an estimated 45,000 15-34 year olds now meeting the criteria for cannabis dependence.
A combination of increasingly potent strains of the drug and a “widespread conception” among the public that it is generally harmless has had “devastating effects”, the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland said.
While calling on the Government to conduct an urgent review of cannabis use and related harms, the college has begun its own information campaign amid concerns that psychiatric services could be “overrun” by a surge in young people needing treatment of mental issues linked to the drug.
The college says there were 877 admissions in 2019 to medical hospitals in Ireland with a cannabis-related diagnosis, four times the figure for 2005.
“As many as one in three young people who use cannabis weekly or more often will likely become addicted,” said Dr Gerry McCarney, a consultant child and adolescent addiction psychiatrist.
“When you consider how potent the drug has become in recent years, it is obvious we are facing a perfect storm which has the potential to overrun our psychiatric services.”
The average age at which children start to try cannabis is 12-14, with many going on to “almost daily” use, and those requiring referral to mental health services aged 15-16 on average, Dr McCarney said.
However, some children as young as seven to eight were “dabbling” in the drug, he added, while 11 year olds have required treatment.
Psychosis and depression
“The earlier you start, the greater the potential risk,” he said. “This is a critical phase of young people’s lives, a time of learning and the opening of career opportunities. You don’t get that time back again if it’s lost to cannabis misuse.”
Mental health issues associated with cannabis use include psychosis, depression, anxiety disorders and suicidal behaviour. These have been exacerbated by rising levels of THC, the psychoactive part of the drug, in cannabis in recent years.
College president Dr William Flannery said cannabis use was increasing but "there is still a general feeling among the public that the drug is mostly harmless".
“This conception needs to be challenged at every turn because psychiatric services are under huge pressure due to this problem.”
The college is the professional and training body for psychiatrists in Ireland and represents 1,000 specialists and trainees across the country.