Dr Keith Chiappa
Dr Keith Chiappa

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 22: Medical experts have strongly warned against making cannabis legal.

A psychiatrist with specialist qualifications and a neurologist both said cannabis use could lead to serious mental and physical problems — especially in younger users.

This after National Security Minister Wayne Perinchief said penalties for small amounts of cannabis might be disproportionate and that it was time we followed the lead of countries like the UK and US, which have eased up on people caught with small amounts of the drug.

Global report

Government Senator Marc Bean recently called for a debate on the merits of decriminalising drugs in the wake of a report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. A distinguished panel that wrote the report said the war on drugs had failed and recommended partial legalization as a solution to the blight of the illegal drugs trade on communities around the world.

Not so fast, warn medics.

Side effects of marijuana can include a heightened risk of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, depression, damage to memory and judgement and heart problems.

Neurologist Dr Keith Chiappa said: “The use of marijuana, especially in younger age groups, should not be encouraged by any legalisation and should continue to be discouraged by specific programmes.”

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Chantelle Simmons said: “Cannabis use has been shown to be associated with difficulties in thought processes in 15-20 year olds.

“When you have a young adult, whose brain is still developing, there is a five times greater risk of schizophrenia.”

“It particularly adversely affects the developing brain and it’s also closely associated with psychosis.”

The Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute doctor added: “As a clinician, I try to focus on medical implications only, but I would have concerns that decriminalization would send a message that it was okay to encourage marijuana use.”

Dr Simmons added that studies had shown that marijuana use caused higher rates of depressive illness in adult women – four times the rate of depression found in non-users.

Teenage marijuana smokers have also been found to be less likely to complete high school and more likely to make poor career and life choices.

Dr Simmons said: “People say ‘it’s only weed, it’s natural’. It is a natural substance, but it can have significant adverse effects. It can not only cause psychosis, but exacerbate existing phychoses.”

She added that smoking marijuana releases ‘feel good’ dopamine in the brain – which some experts suggest could lead to the use of harder drugs like cocaine in a bid to increase the amount of dopamine released by a high.

Dr Simmons said: “There’s not a direct correlation in the literature – but all drugs activate that reward pathway in the brain and increases the brain’s desire for dopamine and people may progress to cocaine or heroin.

“My medical advice is to err on the side of caution.”

She added: “There is also an increased cardiac risk because smoking marijuana increases the heart rate, particularly in the first hour after someone smokes.”

The report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy — whose members include various former presidents and ex-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former US Secretary of State George Schultz – said the war on drugs had failed.

But Dr Chiappa, a neurologist at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, said: “Those who accept or promote any legalization of marijuana should take heed of recently published scientific studies which have found that exposure to marijuana has far-reaching and serious effects on the brain, especially memory functions, judgment and mental health.”

He added that a recent study by Harvard Medical School carried out a survey to test planning, abstract thinking and moderating social behaviour in people who had started smoking marijuana at a young age, those who had started later and those who did not smoke marijuana at all.

He said: “The non-smokers performed better than the smokers and the early onset smokers did worse than the late onset smokers, in some areas making twice as many errors.

“These functions are performed in the last area of the brain to develop in adolescents, the prefrontal cortex and the marijuana-induced damage appears to be irreversible.”

Dr Chiappa added smoking marijuana also exposed users to the same health risks as cigarette smokers, including lung diseases like cancer.

What do you think? Would decriminalizing cannabis help or harm Bermuda? E-mail editor Tony McWilliam.