Talk to Frank is well known in the UK as the government’s anti drug advertising campaign and has been criticised often on this blog (and elsewhere) for the less than fully honest nature of some of it’s information. It’s therefore interesting to compare Talk to Frank – a campaign designed and run by an advertising company – with a foreign government run campaign.

The big claim made by Talk to Frank is that it exists to give honest information about drugs without being judgemental and to an extent this is true, although of course it does exist to support the government policy and when push comes to shove the truth plays second fiddle. Frank at least tries to connect with it’s target audience and doesn’t present itself as an anti-drug campaign, although of course that’s what it is.

NCIPC logoIn Australia they do things differently with a website campaign entitled “NCPIC – the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre“. The website describes itself as:

The NCPIC mission is to reduce the use of cannabis in Australia by preventing uptake and providing the community with evidence-based information and interventions.

Note the “prevention and information” part of the name. At least it’s honest, there’s none of this “yoof speak” matey approach of Frank, what you get with NCPIC is quite openly cannabis prevention with a veneer of information – ie a website designed and intended to support the prohibition policy. Also it’s not focused on the users, but on “the community”, whatever that means.

I queried this aspect via their feedback address info@ncpic.org.au, suggesting that if they wanted to engage with the cannabis using population this was possibly not the best name for the campaign. Some weeks passed before I got a reply and when it came it was from someone I’ve met on three occasions:  Dr Jan Copeland, who turns out to be the director of NCPIC. I’ve heard Dr Copeland talk at three events in recent years – both Cannabis and mental health conferences in London and a HIT conference in Liverpool. Dr Copeland is a very enthusiastic supporter of prohibition and a keen advocate of measures such as drug testing and drug treatment of – as she has it – cannabis addicts. Dr Copeland spends a lot of time and energy travelling the world to address conferences, spreading the prohibition message. Her input into this NCPIC campaign is perhaps easy to spot.

On the choice of the name Dr Copeland said:

We have no control over our name as it was decided by our funding body and we are cognisant of its potential negative impact on engaging cannabis users with our site.

Which is interesting, perhaps it sort of implies someone in the Australian government isn’t too happy about the whole thing so they picked a name which is honest about the sites intentions, even though those running it objected? Or perhaps the traditional drug war mentality won out? Who knows, but it’s clearly an own goal.

But what of the information the site contains? Well, as might be expected there is no hint of criticism of the prohibition regime nor any indication that the problems they describe may in any way be caused by it.The site promises to provide

regular e-Zines and a Bulletin Series on the latest cannabis research by NCPIC and its consortium partners, as well as latest findings internationally

Well, no issue is more high profile than the one around cannabis and mental illness, so lets see what information the site has on this:

Cannabis and mental health fact sheet

There have been a number of studies that have explored the link between cannabis use and mental health symptoms. Strong associations are often found but this is not the same as a causal link (i.e. one causes the other).

and

There have been reports of people experiencing these psychotic symptoms after smoking a lot of cannabis or more cannabis than they are used to. This is rare and the symptoms, although frightening at the time, usually go away if use of cannabis is stopped. Cannabis has been shown to make psychotic symptoms worse in those who already have a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia.

Not bad, indeed the whole information is pretty spot-on

Generally speaking, those who start smoking cannabis earlier (early adolescence) and smoke heavily are more likely to experience negative consequences. This may in turn lead to mental health problems, but also lead to more general life problems, like conflict at home or school / work, financial problems and memory problems.

Kids shouldn’t do drugs, heavy users are most likely to get problems – fine.

In the latest (June) issue of the NCPIC e-zine Dr Copeland descibes her most recent foriegn conference trip and it also features an advice leaflet entitled “Helping someone with problem cannabis use: Mental Health First Aid Guidelines“. Now reading this will give an impression that cannabis is a very dangerous and destructive drug indeed, which raises the suspicion the Dr Copeland has had rather more to do with its writing than the fact sheet descibed above.

Mental Health First Aid for problem cannabis use is the help given to someone who is developing a problem with their cannabis use, or someone in a cannabis-related crisis. Mental Health First Aid is provided until professional treatment is obtained or the crisis resolves.

OK, fair enough, this looks interesting. So what are the problems cannabis users are likely to face?

Harm linked with cannabis use may include social (e.g. legal problems), physical (e.g. respiratory problems) and psychological (e.g. anxiety and depression) issues.

Right from the start the effects of prohibition are mixed in with the actual medical effects of using cannabis, the legal problems are a result of the drug, not the law apparently, typical prohibition mindset 1.

Problems with cannabis may occur at the same time as problems with alcohol, other drugs or mental health. Combinations of drugs and alcohol can lead to short and long-term harm, therefore the information in these guidelines also applies to cannabis use in the context of alcohol and other drug use.

Quite clearly alcohol is not a drug and the “direction of blame” – if it can be put like that – is of drug use leading to problems, rather than other problems leading to problematic drug us. Again, this is a very typical prohibitionist mindset 2.

Interestingly the advice given for helping a person with problematic cannabis use includes the following:

Do not criticise the person’s cannabis use

(do not) use negative approaches

(do not) deny their basic needs (e.g. food or shelter)

All well and good and there is some good advice there also about how to talk to the person. But then we get a section headed “Cannabis-affected states”

Cannabis-affected states refer to temporary alterations in the person’s mental state or behaviour as a result of cannabis use, resulting in distress or impairment.

The effects of cannabis vary from person to person and the behavioural signs of cannabis-affected states vary depending on the person’s level of intoxication. A person who is a regular or heavy user of cannabis may also experience distress (e.g. irritability or aggression) if they stop using cannabis suddenly.

“Temporary alterations in the person’s mental state or behaviour as a result of cannabis use, resulting in distress or impairment” – this is what the rest of the world calls “being stoned” and this section seems designed to make people scared of stoned people.

What to do if the person is in a cannabis-affected state (stoned):

• Stay calm and assess the situation for potential dangers. Try to ensure that the person, yourself and others are safe.
• Talk with the person in a respectful manner using simple, clear language. Be prepared to repeat simple requests and instructions as the person may find it difficult to comprehend what has been said. Do not speak in an angry manner.
• Try to dissuade the affected person from engaging in dangerous behaviours, such as driving a vehicle or operating machinery. Tell the person that it is dangerous to drive even though they may feel alert.
• Encourage the person to tell someone if they start to feel unwell or uneasy, or to call emergency services if they have an adverse reaction.

Oh dear, its as this was written by someone with no experience of the situation – honestly, “stay calm” indeed! OK, it’s good advice about driving but not if it comes from such an ignorant perspective.

Then we get a section about medical emergencies. Cannabis, we are told, can “lead to medical emergencies” especially when it’s mixed with other drugs including alcohol. Actually most problems come with mixing cannabis and alcohol and it’s the alcohol that’s the problem but never mind. We are advised that:

Even though there may be legal implications for the person, it is important that you seek medical help if required and that you tell medical staff that the person has been using cannabis (and/or other drugs if necessary).

So someone has a bit to much to drink, smokes a spliff, throws a whitey and has the ambulance called resulting in them getting busted. Now here we have a clear example of the law creating a problem for the well being of the cannabis user (especially as it’s apparently enacted in Australia) but again, no hint of criticism of the law or even an acceptance that it can cause harm.

We then get a section on panic attacks and psychosis. Whilst some of the advice here is quite good, it is greatly overstated. It may be that in some instances the symptoms can be serious, but in the vast majority of the time a calm voice and quite place is enough to get someone over an attack of the horrors. The leaflet doesn’t help to distinguish between the minor and the very rare extreme case.

Then we get a page of advice on how to handle suicidal and aggressive people. Again, not to say this never happens but on the whole and in the vast, vast majority of cases it’s far from the likely scenario. There’s nothing wrong with giving advice about the extreme situations, but it is very wrong to present them as the norm (or even as in any way common) which this leaflet does.

One last example, the factsheet on Cannaboids: Again, some interesting information although there is no mention of the problems caused by prohibition in making it impossible to know the composition of the cannabis on sale.

This means that a plant with a greater percentage of CBD may reduce the intensity of the effects of the THC, which in effect lowers the potency of the plant. Use of a cannabis plant with less CBD has been shown to have an increased psychological impact and result in unwanted effects such as anxiety.

I raised this im my e-mail to NCPIC:

Increased CBD content doesn’t make the plant less potent in effect, but it does change the overall effect. Cannabis high in both THC and CBD is very potent and intense, but perhaps less “edgy” and less likely to produce psychotic effects such as paranoia etc.

It is important to accept the the only reason it’s not possible to know what type of plant (and hence the ratio of THC/CBD the use is getting is because of prohibition.

Dr Copeland replied:

CBD and THC are found in inverse proportions in cannabis cultivars.  It is not, therefore, possible to have high CBD and THC co-existing.

Well actually you can have strong cannabis with equal proportions of the two drugs, she’s confusing potency with strength.

The literature on the antipsychotic/anxiolytic effects of CBD is interesting and growing.  Unfortunately, the levels of CBD in street herbal cannabis appear to be markedly dropping as a result of the focus on sensimilla cultivation.  Hair testing of cannabis users has found that a significant minority had no CBD at all.

Sensimilla plants as such are not the reason for the drop in CBD content, you can if you want grow Sensi hemp after all. And it’s interesting she basis that claim on the results of hair drug testing (which has a number of assumptions) rather than product sampling. In any case, it didn’t address my point about the effect of prohibition.

It’s a real pity that this site – as with Talk to Frank – is so badly compromised by the prohibition regime. A lot of the information on NCPIC is very good – and there’s a lot of it, but it’s not aimed at the people they want to influence and it does have the clear prohibition agenda which any cannabis user will spot a mile off.