Fears raised over cannabis use as Portsmouth picnic is planned

Simon Dignam, 41, who helps run Hampshire Cannabis Community. Picture: Sarah Standing (142617-8472)
Simon Dignam, 41, who helps run Hampshire Cannabis Community. Picture: Sarah Standing (142617-8472)
Alex Wardle, from Lee-on-the-Solent, collapsed at home and tragically died in March 2016, aged 23. 

From left: Alex's father, Stephen Wardle, sister Gemma Wardle, Alex Wardle and his mother, Denise Wardle.

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FEARS have been raised over the ‘frightening’ potential dangers of cannabis as hundreds prepare to attend a picnic highlighting the benefits of the drug.

More than 250 supporters are expected to attend the Cannabis Awareness Picnic on Castle Field in Southsea on Saturday.

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Campaigners calling for the class B drug to be legalised have said the drug has medicinal benefits.

But concerns have been raised by Portsmouth’s director of public health and mental health charities about the potential risks of taking cannabis.

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane, said: ‘Many young people smoke cannabis and in particular its stronger version “skunk”, which has a particular chemical make-up and which can trigger frightening psychotic episodes, cause relapse and may bring about mental conditions such as schizophrenia.

‘Any message which risks diluting these dangers to the roughly 10 per cent of people who are genetically or otherwise vulnerable, could cause widespread suffering for them and their families.’

The picnic has been set up by Hampshire Cannabis Community, which has said there are no plans for cannabis to be smoked at the event.

Organiser Simon Dignam, 41, of Havant, said speakers will talk about the benefits of cannabis and why it should be legalised.

He said: ‘I’ve smoked cannabis for about 25 years and it was only recently I thought I would research what I’m smoking, and that’s when I met Clark French.

‘Clark suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses the drug to ease his symptoms. He is a real inspiration to me.’

Mr French, 28, organised a protest picnic in Reading last August.

He will run a stall at the picnic for the United Patients Alliance, a group he founded that seeks to advance legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use: ‘I think most importantly cannabis needs to be available to patients who need it medically,’ he said.

‘For me, it reduces my pain and spasms drastically, means I can sleep better, and pretty much helps me physically across the board. It’s given to patients in other countries and has been scientifically proven to help.’

Dr Janet Maxwell, director of public health and Safer Portsmouth Partnership lead for drugs and alcohol said ‘Cannabis has real and harmful effects on the mind and body. It affects how your brain works and can make users of the drug feel very anxious or paranoid.

‘Using it has been linked, in some people, to serious, long-term mental health problems. Just like smoking tobacco, smoking cannabis has also been linked to lung diseases like tuberculosis and lung cancer. It is important that people don’t lose the message about the negative effects cannabis can have.’

Mark Winstanley, chief executive of charity Rethink Mental Illness, said: ‘We think there needs to be more education about the potential dangers of cannabis.

‘Cannabis is a bit like peanuts – some people react very strongly, some not at all. What is certain is that smoking cannabis is like playing a game of Russian roulette with your mental health.

‘Studies suggest that people who smoke cannabis and have a genetic vulnerability to psychosis are more likely to develop mental illness, and at an earlier age. One study found that using the drug before the age of 15 can quadruple your risk of experiencing psychosis.

‘We’re not saying that everyone who has the odd joint is going to wake up the next day with full-blown psychosis. What we’re saying is that cannabis is not the “safe” drug that many believe it to be.’

Hampshire Police has said safer neighbourhood officers will be attending the event on Saturday.

Inspector Louise Tester said: ‘This event is advertised as an awareness event with no suggestion that illegal substances will be used.

‘Safer Neighbourhood officers will be available to advise on the law. While everyone has the right to make a peaceful protest, Hampshire Police will not tolerate the use of illegal drugs and any drug use or possession will be dealt with.’

What are the potential effects of the substance?

According to Frank, which offers confidential drugs advice, cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in Britain.

It is naturally occurring and made from the cannabis plant.

It is classed as a sedating and hallucinogenic drug.

It can make people feel relaxed and happy, they may get the giggles or become very talkative or hungry.

It can cause anxiety, suspicion, panic and paranoia and in some people is linked to serious, long-term mental illness.

What councillors have to say on the matter

COUNCILLORS have said it is important that the potential harmful effects of cannabis are highlighted.

Tory councillor Robert New, cabinet member for environment and community safety, said: ‘While it is good to have freedom of expression it is important that people remember that cannabis can have very harmful effects of mental health and should not be promoted as a healthy pastime, especially to young people who can be particularly vulnerable to peer pressure.

‘It is still a class B drug and you can get a criminal record for possession although we do use conditional cautions in Portsmouth.’

Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of the Lib Dems in Portsmouth, said: ‘Our view is that drug use remains illegal and there’s no proposal to change that.

‘There is a suggestion that there is more research needed to be done to see if there are any cases where the harm is not as great, but the law is the law and cannabis remains a banned drug.’

‘Personally I believe further research into the medical benefits of pain control for those suffering from serious illnesses is well worth doing, because severe pain is a terrible thing, however, I do not agree with the recreational use of marijuana.’

On Sunday the Liberal Democrats nationally announced a policy that suggests new plans to decriminalise personal drug possession.

The law

- Cannabis is a class B drug. It is illegal to possess, give away or sell whatever the drug is being used for, including for medicinal purposes.

- The maximum penalty for possessing cannabis is five years in prison.

- The maximum penalty for supplying the drug is 14 years in jail.

- A conviction for a drug-related offence could prevent a person from visiting certain countries and can limit the types of jobs they can apply for.

- Police can issue an on-the-spot fine of £90 to a person found with cannabis according to the Home Office.

- Colorado made history in January by becoming the first US state to allow shops to sell recreational cannabis to people over the age of 21.

- It is among 20 states that have now approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. However, the drug 
is still illegal under federal law.