Public Health Service 'ill-equipped' to provide treatment for cannabis users despite surge in numbers seeking help, experts warn

Researchers argue that the lack of available treatment and understanding around cannabis dependency is a major public health concern, with users often being ignored

Rachael Pells
Saturday 25 June 2016 13:12 BST
Of those seeking treatment, 43 per cent of18-24 year-olds named cannabis as their primary drug, compared to just 16 per cent for opiates
Of those seeking treatment, 43 per cent of18-24 year-olds named cannabis as their primary drug, compared to just 16 per cent for opiates (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

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Health experts have warned that the public health care system is unprepared and ill-equipped to provide help for cannabis users, despite a rapid increase in the number of people seeking treatment for problems relating to the drug.

Researchers gathering at a conference at the University of York highlighted the discovery of “concerning, unexpected” new symptoms reported by intensive users of cannabis and synthetic alternatives, including agitation and impulse control problems, contradicting the perception of cannabis as a suppressive drug.

One new study presented to the group demonstrated that while the use of cannabis has fallen in recent years, those smaller numbers of people are using the drug more intensively, with 73 per cent of all cannabis consumed by 9 per cent of users.

“We’re effectively seeing a surge of people presenting for treatment but centres are not sure what to do wth them,” explained Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health in the Department of Health Sciences at York University, a member of the research group. “It’s like going in for heart surgery but finding the doctors don’t have the necessary equipment to do it.”

While previous studies show that one in 10 dependent cannabis users now seek treatment, researchers at the Cannabis Matters meeting said access and routes into treatment remain unclear and even when they could be traced they were varied.

“We noticed something strange going on with the drug statistics,” said Mark Monaghan, a Social Sciences researcher at Loughborough University. “While fewer people were seemingly using cannabis, more people were lamenting to treatment services to cannibis related problems, but when we started to explore the literature around this, it was pretty unclear as to why this was happening - and what was happening to users once they were getting into treatment.”

Another pattern acknowledged by the researchers was that an increasing number of people seeking help for drug use are citing cannabis as their primary problem, yet the drug is still not taken seriously by many healthcare professionals.

“At a time when cannabis treatment demand is rising there is also increasingly competitive tendering between treatment providers for these contracts,” said Mr Hamilton. “This has created a disincentive for services to share intelligence with each other about good practice and potential solutions with their competitors.”

“Once in treatment it was clear that the response users had was variable in terms of interventions, in particular how seriously cannabis problems were viewed by treatment staff, with the consistent view being that cannabis was a benign drug.”

“It was people using cannabis who had the knowledge and expertise of the drug and its effects, rather that the treatment staff.”

The group of researchers argue that the lack of available treatment and understanding around cannabis dependency is a major public health concern, and should be treated on the same level as alcohol or smoking addiction. The health risks for cannabis are exacerbated by the factit is often used in conjunction with tobacco, putting users at increased risk of niccotine addiction and other associated health problems.

“Despite the success of initiatives to reduce tobacco use in the general population, cannabis users have largely been ignored,” The researchers said. “Treatment may offer an opportunity to intervene on both tobacco and cannabis use.”

Of those seeking treatment for drug use in 2014, 43 per cent of the 18-24 age group named cannabis as their primary drug, compared to just 16 per cent for opiates including heroin.

Synthetic cannabinoids such as ‘spice’ have also been named as a potential factor for the suggested increase in dependency among intensive users. According to Professor Harry Sumnall from the Centre for Public Health, SCRAs - which are now banned under the psychoactive substances act - work differently to organic cannabis, their chemicals acting on different neuro-receptors to produce distinct physical and psychological effects.

Over half of those using SCRAs more than 50 times in last year who tried to stop reported withdrawal symptoms, according to the most recent Global Drug Survey.

Synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to lead to emergency medical treatment than any other drug, with one in eight weekly users seeking emergency medical treatment.

In a statement, Rosanna O’Connor, Director of Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco at Public Health England said: “It is clear that while substance misuse treatment is working well for many, there is a need for increasingly specialist approaches to support a range of complex needs, especially among the more vulnerable in our communities."

“It’s vital that local authorities continue to invest so those in need of help are supported on the road to recovery, giving them the best possible chance of living a better, healthier life. Public Health England continues to support local areas in delivering effective tailored services, which increasingly need to meet the needs of older drug users and younger people for whom drug use is just one of many problems.”

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