The drugs debate is getting really interesting now, or it should be. On the one hand are the growing calls for change on the basis that the war on drugs has failed and on the other, the prohibitionists who are arguing that we can’t legalise drugs because cannabis has mutated into skunk and its a highly toxic drug that’s driving our kids insane. Instead of opening up to a full and frank examination of where we’re at, it’s a depressingly sorry debate made worse by ill-informed politicians.

Charles Walker MP

Charles Walker MP

The prohibitionists hype was trotted out again last week by yet another Tory MP;  Charles Walker MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire who has been schooled by Mary Brett, the self-appointed cannabis expert and spokesperson for of  “Europe Against Drugs“. Mr Walker introduced a short “adjournment debate” in the House of Commons on 9th June entitled “Cannabis and Psychosis (Young People)“. He stood up and ran through the usual claims used by the likes of Mary Brett to justify cannabis prohibition:

It is appropriate that my debate follows an informative debate on child protection.

Child protection is supposed to mean protecting children of course, something the war on drugs famously doesn’t do.

Up and down the country, too many families are suffering the torture of watching their children squander their futures—bright children who have so much to live for ending up with so little. All too often, that is brought about by an addiction to skunk cannabis—a drug that is ruining young lives.

Now, the obvious thing to pick up here is that the MP is claiming there is a problem with children using cannabis. In this he is right, since the misuse of drugs act the age of first use of cannabis has dropped greatly and now it is indeed not uncommon for children to be using it. This, of course, is the result of the uncontrolled nature of the cannabis trade – a point Mr Walker doesn’t seem to understand.

Even worse, it’s not as if we haven’t been here before.

"Save the children"

"Save the children" - a slogan used to end alcohol prohibition in the US

“Save the children” was a slogan used to end American alcohol prohibition, when the exact same thing had happened and alcohol was being used by children with much the same results as Mr Walker is now warning about with cannabis. Seems he hasn’t learned  from that experience…

He is building a case based on the claim that in recent years cannabis has changed from being the mild drug that it was before the Misuse of Drugs Act onto the new mutant variety. As we know it’s uncertain if this claim is true (to be diplomatic), but if it is even remotely true, Mr Walker doesn’t seem to understand why it has come about.

THC— Tetrahydrocannabinol—content of skunk cannabis is now six times higher than it was in the cannabis of the ’70s and ’80s: 18% compared to 3%.

So now the THC levels are six times what they used to be according to Mr Walker. It would be interesting to know where he gets this figure from because the Home Office  “Cannabis potency study” that tried its best to look into this issue in 2008 , albeit based on Micky Mouse data collection methods, came up with a lower estimate. Weak as this study is, it’s the best indication of what’s happened to cannabis strength/potency over the past 50 or so years we have and according to them modern sensi cannabis is 2 – 3 times stronger than oldskool hash on average – not 6 times. In any case, there’s a wide spread of strengths available out there, and there has always been strong cannabis available.

The CBD—Cannabidiol— content of skunk cannabis, which is the bit of the chemical that counteracted the psychotic effects of THC, has now been removed from the drug.

It isn’t “a bit of a chemical” and it hasn’t “been removed”, but there may be less of it in some strains that there used to be in the hash from North Africa we used to get before the Misuse of Drugs Act and the wider prohibition efforts closed off the supply and caused the market shift to the herbal varieties grown herein the UK.

The MP then tries to explain how cannabis works in the brain. Quite honestly it’s always a good rule of thumb not to try to describe a process you clearly know little about, but that didn’t stop Mr Walker explaining how cannabis affects the Dopamine balance in the brain and hence

creates a sense of euphoria, but it also has many side-effects—hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, attention impairment and emotional impairment.

Yeees as Jeremy Paxman might say. He goes on to warn

The problem is that young brains do not properly form in adolescence; they do not do so until they are in their early 20s.

In essence he is right in this, except of course a child’s brain is still developing, rather than not having been formed properly. He seems unaware of the fact that any drug use by kids is possibly going to disrupt that growing/learning process, it isn’t something restricted to cannabis or even the “new skunk” varieties. Children should not be using drugs, that is a simple fact that I’m sure he would agree with if he thought about it. The fact that they are using cannabis shows there is something wrong, or it should do, but Mr Walker concludes that the problem isn’t the regime surrounding cannabis, but the emergence of the “new skunk” types.

If a youngster smokes skunk cannabis, at best their academic performance will be retarded. So many teachers have told me about young, bright children getting to a certain age and then their academic performance just goes backwards—not slowly, but rapidly, as they go from being at the top of the class, to the middle, to the bottom and to not turning up in class at all. That is a tragedy; a young mind is a terrible thing to waste.

What’s happened is that kids are using drugs now, they didn’t used to; that is the change we should be concerned about, not that kids are suddenly using a new form of something they’ve always been using which Mr Walker seems to be implying is the problem. He then brings up an old chestnut:

One in four of us carry a faulty gene for dopamine transmission. If a youngster has that gene and smokes skunk cannabis, they are six times more likely to get a psychotic illness than the average youngster out there. If both parents give them two of these genes, they are 10 times more likely to suffer a psychotic incident and suffer long-term brain damage.

Again, it really isn’t a good idea to try to explain something you clearly don’t understand.Now I’m no brain surgeon either, but he is talking about the COMT gene theory which went something like this: The gene comes in two variants, the VAL and the Met form. When babies are made, both parents give half genes – from the  mother and father – which combine to produce the genetic make up of the baby, so a baby can have either met-met, met val or val met (which is the same thing) or val-val  versions of the COMT gene. The Val-val type was thought to be a “faulty” combination and a possible route by which cannabis could cause schizophrenia which 25% of us would have. However research which set out to look at this didn’t support the theory and concluded:

Schizophrenia risk is not influenced by variations in the cannabinoid receptor (CNR1) and alpha7-nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (CHRNA7) genes, say UK researchers. They also found no evidence for the purported effects of cannabis use on schizophrenia according to variation in the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene.

The COMT gene mechanism was only ever a theory, Mr Walker seems to think it was a fact.

He then read out a series of stories about parents who have had teenagers suffering from psychosis/schizophrenia which he put down to their cannabis use. Now as we’ve noted many times in this blog there is an correlation with cannabis use and mental illness, that isn’t in doubt, but a correlation is not a cause. Teenagers have always been the group of people who go down with this terrible illness and when they do the stories are often much the same – with or without cananbis use. We also know from the Keele Study of 2009 that the incidence of psychosis hasn’t changed, despite the increase in cannabis use and the arrival of so-called skunk.

The most parsimonious explanation of the results reported here are that the schizophrenia/psychoses data presented here are valid and the causal models linking cannabis with schizophrenia/psychoses are not supported by this study.

Small details like this don’t seem to matter to Mr Walker however. He has no evidence to base his claims on, no real understanding of the science behind it, yet still feels able to stand up in Parliament to pursue up an illogical argument. He was asked a question as to whether he wanted the drugs laws toughened up, his reply included

Drug education works, but we need to educate the educators. They need to be aware of the research that shows a strong causal link between skunk cannabis, psychosis and schizophrenia.

Even if it doesn’t? He admitted (in so many words) that he has used prohibited drugs in his younger days – as many of us have. He should therefore know that prohibition doesn’t work because it didn’t work for him. MP’s are strange people, they never seem to learn from experience as we observed above – it seems to be a precondition for the job.

He also made this strange comment, presumably based on reports of cocaine snorters damaging their noses

will just say this, however: it is a lot easier to repair a septum in one’s nose than to repair a brain.

He seems to be of the impression that cannabis is more dangerous than cocaine, which is the thrust of the message put about by the likes of Mary Brett of late. If that was his message, he is wrong – seriously and dangerously wrong.

He finished with this remark:

Skunk cannabis has changed over the past 30 years. It is a major public health risk. It is robbing thousands of people of an opportunity to live fulfilled lives. I have worked with the Minister, and she has been fabulous up to this point, and I am sure she will continue her efforts to get this topic higher up the Department’s agenda.

If he really believes this, then he should be prepared to look at the reasons this could have happened. According to his argument cannabis was a safe drug, then it was made a prohibited drug, then it became dangerous, there is a simple cause and effect relationship at play there he doesn’t seem to want to see. He says it became dangerous because CBD was “taken out”, then doesn’t it make sense to ensure it’s “put back in”, is he aware that is a very easy thing to arrange? If he’s worried about children getting hold of cannabis, why doesn’t he call for a properly regulated trade, with age limits and properly targeted laws to protect children?

The reason, of course, is he is putting the argument of Mary Brett. How do we know this? Because he closed his speech with the words

Finally, I want to pay tribute to my enormously good friend, Mary Brett, a former teacher who has worked for decades in the interests of young people and their welfare.

Mary Brett may be well intentioned and is no doubt a tireless campaigner, but she is also dangerous. She has the ear of several MP’s and has made a good job of spreading her twisted views around the places that matter. The fact that she is so utterly wrong in many of her assertions and conclusions is no consolation.

Charles Walker is also probably well meaning in this respect, but he doesn’t seem to bother checking things he is told as fact. He should do so, especially when the source is Mary Brett.