Recreational dope users 'blind to creeping effects'
THE rush to legalise medical marijuana sent the wrong signals and risked attracting more users to the worst of its effects, according to a leading global authority on drug abuse.
Dr Allan Y. Cohen, a summa cum laude graduate and later PhD in clinical psychology at Harvard University, said recreational users of marijuana were blind to the creeping, accumulative nature of its negative effects.
He said debate about medical marijuana should be refined to discussion about its components: THC, a hallucinogen with serious public health impacts, and cannabinoids, which may have great promise in the treatment of some conditions.
Dr Cohen is the founder and director of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, the United States' largest independent research institute on substance abuse prevention, and author of key publications and books on psychedelic drugs and drug prevention.
He has also been a consultant to governments on alcohol and drug problems.
He is on the Sunshine Coast ahead of discussions with Australian colleagues on drug education and drug policy and a tour with the Meher Baba spiritual group.
Dr Cohen said the medical marijuana push, which has the support of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, appeared too narrow. He said the conversation needed to be about cannabis products, of which marijuana was just one form.
"Just discussing marijuana misses the point,'' he said. "You can't change policy independent of understanding the real drugs involved.
"Cannabinoids can be very effective for childhood epileptic disorders but the marijuana that is used has little or no THC."
Dr Cohen said the danger of full legalisation of THC products was real because of the impossibility of users to understand their addiction or its effects on their brains.
"Alcohol gives really quick feedback,'' he said. "You know when you have overindulged and it is out of your system in 24 hours or so.
"It still kills a lot of people in association with behaviour involving accidents and violence.
"Marijuana creeps up on you. It stays in your fat cells. Even people who are very moderate in their use don't know the THC amount that has gradually built up.
"THC destroys feedback systems. It makes it difficult to see what is happening. They know when they are stoned but miss the decline in IQ, mental illness and psychosis that affects ordinary life performance.
"It is very subtle. The problem with legalisation is that people will need to really screw up to be aware they have a problem.''
Dr Cohen said research showed that one in six kids who take up smoking marijuana and one in nine adults will become addicted.
Dr Cohen said just making the drug illegal did not work. A softer approach through the use of drug courts that allowed criminal records to be expunged after rehabilitation was far more positive.
"The important message to give kids who generally had not much respect for rules and didn't show great concern for health effects was a simple one. Drugs don't work,'' he said.
"Drugs can make you forget but don't solve anything."
Dr Cohen should know. He was involved in early clinical trials of psychedelic drugs with Timothy Leary at Harvard University.
Unimpressed by their supposed benefits, he later conducted an anti-drug campaign across the UK with The Who guitarist Pete Townshend and went on to advise the White House on drug policy.