New and more harmful strains of cannabis could be responsible for the growing number of teenagers needing specialist help after using the drug, The Daily Telegraph reported today.
The story comes from a new report on use of treatment services for substance misuse among young peop. The good news is that the study found that, overall, the number of those under 18 seeking specialist help for drugs and alcohol has fallen over the past year.
The potentially bad news is that the number needing help for cannabis misuse has risen.
The researchers offer several theories about why this may be the case, including that:
- the increasing use of a potent type of herbal cannabis (skunk) may lead to a corresponding increase in mental health problems related to cannabis use
- there is wider awareness of the health problems associated with cannabis use, so young people with problems are more likely to be referred to specialist services
The report has been published by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA), an NHS special health authority. The NTA was set up to improve the availability and effectiveness of treatment for drug misuse in England.
The report points out that a very small percentage of young people have serious problems with drugs or alcohol. This year’s data show that 20,688 young people used specialist alcohol or drug services – which amounts to 0.4% of the total population of around 5.5 million young people aged 9-17 in England.
The report also highlights the fact that, overall, the number of under-18s needing help for drug or alcohol use has fallen for the third year running and the number treated for problems with class A drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or ecstasy has reduced by more than two-thirds compared with five years ago.
These are encouraging figures that suggest that drug use prevention strategies for young people appear to be increasingly effective.
What are the health risks of cannabis use?
Prolonged cannabis use can affect both physical and mental health, and may cause:
- feelings of anxiety and paranoia
- an increased risk of lung disease, including lung cancer (if you smoke cannabis mixed with tobacco)
- co-ordination problems, which is one of the reasons why drug driving, like drink driving, is illegal
There is some evidence that cannabis can increase the risk of serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or psychosis, if you already have an increased risk of developing such a condition (for example, if a close relative has a serious mental illness).
What does the report say?
The report found that:
- The overall number of under-18s accessing specialist substance misuse services has fallen from 21,955 in 2010-11 to 20,688 in 2011-12.
- The number treated for problems with class A drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or ecstasy, fell from 770 in 2010-11 to 631 in 2011-12.
- The number seeing specialist services for alcohol misuse fell from 7,054 in 2010-11 to 5,884 in 2011-12.
- The proportion of under-18s who left specialist services having successfully completed their programme rose to 77% in 2011-12 from 50% five years ago.
- The number of cases seen by specialist services for help with cannabis misuse was up from 12,784 in 2010-11 to 13,200 this year.
Are these figures part of a significant trend?
Yes. The drop in the number of under-18s accessing specialist services for substance misuse is the latest step in a trend that began in 2008-9, when the number hit a peak of 24,053. It has been declining steadily ever since. This ongoing fall in numbers has happened across misuse of most substances. For example, the number accessing help for alcohol misuse has fallen from a peak of 8,799 in 2008-9, while the number seeking help for class A drugs has also fallen. The increase in those seeking help for cannabis use is also part of a trend.
Cannabis remains by far the most prevalent primary drug that under-18s require treatment for, says the report. In 2008-9 there were 12,642 cases and this number has increased every year since.
While not discussed in the report, the popularity of cannabis with young people could be due to cost and availability. In most areas of the country cannabis is much cheaper than class A drugs such as cocaine.
Why are more young people being treated for cannabis use?
The report says that the rise in the number of people misusing cannabis who need help appears to contradict wider data that indicates fewer young people are using the drug. It suggests there may be several reasons for this discrepancy
First, that stronger strains of the drug (such as the skunk type of herbal cannabis) now available are having a more pronounced effect with prolonged use, raising the likelihood of users needing help.
Second, there is greater awareness of the issues surrounding cannabis use among agencies, such as social and education services, that refer young people to specialist services.
Third, specialist services themselves have become more alert and responsive to the problems that cannabis use can cause for under-18s.
Is treatment for drug and alcohol problems successful?
The report points out that, for young people who need the help and support of specialist services, the prospects remain good. The proportion of those leaving specialist services who successfully completed their treatment was 77% this year, a small rise on last year and a great improvement since 2005-6 when just 48% of those leaving had completed treatment successfully. Similarly, the proportion of those who drop out of treatment has continued to fall from 29% in 2005-6 to 12% in 2011-12.
The report reveals that 44% of under-18s who came for specialist help this year required a psychosocial (‘talking therapy’) intervention alone. A further 35% needed talking therapy in conjunction with harm reduction advice and 1% required prescribed medication.
It also says that most young people don’t need to spend long in specialist services, with the average length of a treatment episode being just over five months.
What else did the report say?
The report’s figures also suggest that young people referred for specialist help face a wide range of problems, with substance misuse seldom an isolated issue. Of those who came for help 76% reported two or more further problems including using drugs when under 15, using two or more drugs, drinking alcohol daily, and wider issues such as pregnancy, self-harming and offending.
On the other hand, 80% of those accessing services were living with their family or other relatives and almost half were in mainstream education. These figures suggest that some young people with substance misuse problems may also come from relatively stable homes and be settled at school or college. About two-thirds of young people coming for help are male, 85% are white.
What about the future?
The report concludes that specialist services for substance misuse are working well, with fewer under-18s needing help from them. For those who do need help, the services are working well. But they warn, “the drop in numbers might be temporary and could quickly be reversed by the long-term effects of the recession and any new drug trends. Alcohol and cannabis remain the key problem substances for this age group and the evidence suggests that those who use them are doing so more intensively than ever”.
Rosanna O’Connor, NTA Director of Delivery, said: “Any substance misuse among young people is a cause for concern. The signs that fewer need help, and that a higher proportion are successfully completing their programme of support, is encouraging.
“The numbers needing specialist interventions remain low and evidence shows that fewer young people are using drugs. However, the advent of new substances and risks of ongoing cannabis and alcohol use in particular present a significant challenge.”