Light Drugs, Heavy Consequences

New Evidence on the Dangers of Marijuana

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, JUNE 3, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Many argue that restrictions on so-called light drugs such as marijuana should be eased. The issue is currently under debate in Italy, where government policy is torn between conflicting tendencies.

Health Minister Livia Turco just announced a proposal to send in inspectors to search for drugs in public schools, following concern over schoolchildren using marijuana, the Italian news agency ANSA reported May 28.

"We must also embark on a major information campaign to convince our children to avoid drugs," Turco declared. The latest announcement was in marked contrast with a proposal the health minister floated a short time ago to raise the ceiling on the amount of marijuana, or cannabis, individuals can possess before being prosecute. That proposal seems dead after it drew strong protests.

One of those who intervened in the debate was Father Pierino Gelmini, founder of Comunità Incontro, a community in the central Italian city of Amelia, dedicated to helping addicts. In a lengthy interview published May 27 by Il Messaggero, Father Gelmini claimed that in 44 years of working with drug addicts, he and the community he founded have saved around 300,000 people.

Based on his decades of experience, Father Gelmini was strongly critical of any moves to weaken laws regarding drug use or possession. As it is, he pointed out, every day in Italy dozens of young people die of drug overdose. People want their children to be drug free, not for there to be free drugs, he exclaimed.

People err in thinking that drugs such as marijuana are innocuous, he stated. Moreover, they are often the gateway to other addictions. Father Gelmini added, however, that it is not enough to just take drugs away from addicts; the vacuum within people needs to be filled with ideals and values that will help them build a new life.

Turnaround

Concern over the ill effects of drugs such as marijuana is more than justified. In fact, just recently the Sunday edition of the British newspaper the Independent made a front-page turnaround in its policy of favoring the decriminalization of cannabis.

The newspaper published a series of articles on March 18 regarding marijuana. One of them asked readers to forgive the paper for the position it took in 1997 in favor of decriminalizing cannabis.

In January 2004 the British government downgraded cannabis from a class B drug to class C. This meant that those possessing small quantities of the drug could not be arrested.
 
Evidence is mounting, however, that the decision was the wrong move. The Independent explained that the cannabis sold today is far more potent than a decade or so ago. There has been up to a 25-fold increase in the amount of the main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabidinol (THC), compared with the early 1990s.

More than 22,000 young people were treated last year in Britain for addiction to cannabis, the article stated. The newspaper cited research published in the medical journal The Lancet demonstrating that marijuana is more dangerous than LSD or ecstasy.

The Independent also quoted professor Colin Blakemore, chief of the Medical Research Council, who had originally backed the newspaper's campaign for cannabis to be decriminalized. He has since changed his mind. "The link between cannabis and psychosis is quite clear now; it wasn't 10 years ago," said Blakemore.

Another opinion cited was that of Robin Murray, professor of psychiatry at London's Institute of Psychiatry. Murray estimated that at least 25,000 of the 250,000 schizophrenics in the United Kingdom could have avoided the illness if they had not used cannabis.

"Society has seriously underestimated how dangerous cannabis really is," professor Neil McKeganey, from Glasgow University's Center for Drug Misuse Research, told the Independent. "I think we are faced with a generation blighted by the effects of cannabis use."

Just a few days later, on March 24, the British newspaper the Times published evidence regarding marijuana's dangers. The Times quoted a study published in the journal Addiction, warning that by the end of the decade one in four new cases of schizophrenia could be triggered by smoking cannabis.

The Department of Health, according to the newspaper, says it is now generally agreed among doctors that cannabis is an important causal factor in mental illness.

Not soft

The Independent returned to the debate on March 25. Among other articles was an opinion piece by Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Cannabis is not at all a "soft" drug, Costa admonished, referring to the dangers for mental health. He recommended that countries invest greater resources in prevention, treatment and rehabilitation instead of weakening legal measures on its possession and use.
 
Costa gave the example of Sweden, where drug use is only one-third of the European average, and where spending on drug control is three times the European average. "Governments and societies must keep their nerve and avoid being swayed by misguided notions of tolerance," said Costa.

On April 22 the Independent published further material on the dangers of marijuana. A 10-year study followed 1,900 schoolchildren until they were 25. The study compared alcohol drinkers with cannabis users. Those who started to use the drug in their teens had a greater probability of suffering mental illness, having relationship problems, and failing out of school or getting fired from their jobs.

The research was carried out at Melbourne University's Center for Adolescent Heath in Australia and published in the journal Addiction.

"Cannabis really does look like the drug of choice for life's future losers," said professor George Patton, who conducted the study.

More evidence came to light on April 30, with a report by the BBC regarding new evidence on mental health problems. A study carried out at London's Institute of Psychiatry found that people who took the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, showed reduced activity in an area of the brain called the inferior frontal cortex, which keeps inappropriate thoughts and behavior, such as swearing and paranoia, in check.

A second study cited by the BBC, this time by a team from Yale University, found that 50% of healthy volunteers who were administered THC began to show symptoms of psychosis.

Loss of dignity

The Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry addressed the question of drugs in a pastoral handbook titled "Church: Drugs and Drug Addiction," published in 2001. From a moral point of view the Church cannot approve drug use, the text explained, because it involves an unjustified renunciation of thinking, willing and acting as free persons (No. 43).

The council said individuals have no "right" to abdicate their personal dignity or to harm themselves. Liberalization of drug laws, the council warned, runs the risk of bringing into existence an inferior class of underdeveloped human beings, who depend on drugs to live. This would be a dereliction of the state's duty to promote the common good (No. 51).

Instead of extending access to drugs, the manual proposed greater education that will teach people the true sense of life and give priority to values, starting with the values of life and love, illuminated by faith. The Church also proposes a therapy of love and dedication to the needs of addicts in order to help them overcome their problems (Nos. 53-55). Solutions that are not easy to carry out, but which offer a remedy in accordance with human dignity.