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UK Royal College of Psychiatrists Set to Review its Cannabis Policy

By Leo Bear-McGuinness
Published: Oct 22, 2018   
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The Royal College of Psychiatrists, the main professional organization of psychiatrists in the United Kingdom, is set to review its opposition to the legalization of cannabis.

The move follows in the wake of the UK government’s recent decision to make medicinal cannabis available on prescription, as well as Canada’s decriminalization of the substance for both medicinal and recreational use.

As the UK’s preeminent body on providing psychiatric research and mental health information, the college’s review creates a stark precedent for other British institutions to follow.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists

Dating back to 1841 and receiving its Royal Charter in 1926, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has a long history of improving the understanding of psychiatry and mental health, both within and outside the UK.

As it plays a vital role in representing the expertise of psychiatrists to public bodies, over the years, the college has been critical in supporting and substantiating the UK government’s opposition to legalizing cannabis. Many of its members are key advisers to ministers on mental health issues.

Now it appears that, just like the UK government’s stance on medicinal cannabis, the college’s attitudes have also changed in recent months.

As it embarks on its own internal review of cannabis policy, it could follow such British establishments as the Royal College of Physicians, British Medical Journal, British Medical Association and Royal Society for Public Health, which have all called for UK drug laws reform.

The changing attitudes towards cannabis in the UK

Cannabis is the most commonly used drug in the UK. In one survey, 6.6% of adults (equivalent to 2.2 million people) aged between 16-59 claimed to have taken the drug in 2011.

But prior to this summer, the UK government’s official stance on cannabis was still in line with the UN’s 1961 ruling in its Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs: that the drug is “one of the most dangerous and regarded as exceptionally addictive and producing severe ill effects.”

With cannabis being an illegal substance, any person found with the drug in the UK can be imprisoned for up to five years, while supplying it can lead to a 14 year jail sentence or an unlimited fine.

However, the pressure to rethink official attitudes to cannabis has grown in the past few months in light of the well-publicized plights of 12-year-old Billy Caldwell and 6-year-old Alfie Dingley. The boys, who both suffer from severe epilepsy, hit the UK headlines after British federal authorities initially denied them the cannabis oil that could relieve them of their symptoms.

Their stories quickly ignited a public conversation on the benefits and legality of the drug and before long the UK’s Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sajid Javid, announced a relaxation in the laws governing access to cannabis.

It is expected that UK doctors will be able to prescribe the drug to patients within the coming months.

The Royal College’s panel

As an esteemed psychiatry institution, the Royal College is a revered resource of mental health literature and expertise. Thus, its position on cannabis has always been strongly influenced by the drug’s negative effects on mental health.

Dr. Adrian James, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ registrar who will chair its review panel, told The Telegraph that he still remains deeply concerned over the risks of psychosis from new high-strength strains (cultivars) of cannabis. However, the college’s head of policy did realize that legalization could pave the way for regulators to limit the strengths of cultivars, generate tax income and reduce the number of users criminalized for taking it.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Dr. James said, “Our official view is that we are concerned about the health risks and we are against legalization of cannabis on that basis, but there may be arguments that outweigh the psychiatric arguments.”

“We will look at the arguments around legalizing street cannabis and the messaging we would want to put out around that.”

Dr. James said the panel would approach their cannabis review with an “open mind” and look through all medical evidence as well as key research undertaken in countries that have already decriminalized the drug, such as Uruguay, Canada and Portugal.

“We need to look at it in more detail to get more evidence. One of the arguments for legalizing cannabis has been that you will get purer forms of it and you can tax it so governments benefit.”

“As a forensic psychiatrist, the strongest argument is decriminalizing behavior that is widespread and avoiding people getting caught up in the criminal justice system and ending up on a conveyor belt. If you can decriminalize it as an activity, you prevent that and the stigma associated with it.”

“We are always after new treatments for mental health problems,” he added.

A former vice-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr. Trevor Turner, also told The Telegraph that to continue treating cannabis as an illegal drug was “insane” as there is no evidence to show a causal link to schizophrenia. Currently, research has only linked the substance and the disorder by association, along with other drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

While access to medicinal cannabis is moving forward in the UK, the current government remains firmly opposed to total decriminalization for recreational use.


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