WHATS NEW? - OCTOBER 2012

Cannabis more damaging to under-18s, study suggests

Glasgow health board reports 358% rise in legal high hospital cases

Truckers driving on Class A drugs to 'relieve boredom'

Concern Over Rise in Mephedrone Use

Cannabis trade worse than that of Class A drugs, senior police officer warns

Children of Parents Dependent on Alcohol 'need more support'

Turning Point call for A and E specialists

Helium and barbiturates contribute to drug death statistics



Cannabis more damaging to under-18s, study suggests


Adolescents who are regular users of cannabis are at risk of permanent damage to their intelligence, attention span and memory, according to the results of research covering nearly four decades.

The long-term study which followed a group of over 1,000 people from birth to the age of 38 has produced the first convincing evidence, say scientists, that cannabis has a different and more damaging effect on young brains than on those of adults.

Around 5% of the group used cannabis at least once a week in adolescence or were considered dependent on it. Between the age of 13 and 38, when all members of the group were given a range of psychological tests, the IQ of those who had been habitual cannabis users in their youth had dropped by eight points on average.

Giving up cannabis made little difference – what mattered was the age at which young people began to use it. Those who started after the age of 18 did not have the same IQ decline.

"This work took an amazing scientific effort," said Professor Terrie Moffitt of King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, one of the authors.

"We followed almost 1,000 participants, we tested their mental abilities as kids before they ever tried cannabis, and we tested them again 25 years later after some participants became chronic users.

"Participants were frank about their substance abuse habits because they trust our confidentiality guarantee, and 96% of the original participants stuck with the study from 1972 to today.

"It's such a special study that I'm fairly confident that cannabis is safe for over-18 brains, but risky for under-18 brains."

The research, on people in Dunedin, New Zealand, was carried out by researchers from King's College and Duke University, North Carolina in the United States.

"Marijuana is not harmless, particularly for adolescents," said Madeline Meier from Duke, one of the researchers. While eight IQ points on a scale where the mean is 100 may not sound a lot, she said, a drop from 100 to 92 represents a move from the 50th to the 29th percentile. Higher IQs correlate with higher education and income, better health and a longer life.

"Somebody who loses eight IQ points as an adolescent may be disadvantaged compared to their same-age peers for years to come," Meier said. The study took into account the education of the participants, which can be disrupted by drug use.

The authors say that young people tend today to think that cannabis is harmless. "Increasing efforts should be directed toward delaying the onset of cannabis use by young people, particularly given the recent trend of younger ages of cannabis-use initiation in the United States and evidence that fewer adolescents believe that cannabis use is associated with serious risk," says the paper.

"The simple message is that substance use is not healthy for kids," said Avshalom Caspi, of Duke and King's, one of the leaders of the study. "That's true for tobacco, alcohol, and apparently for cannabis."

Robin Murray, professor of psychiatric research at King's, who was not involved in the study, said the paper was impressive and if the same results were found in other research, public education campaigns should be launched to warn of the dangers of cannabis to younger people. "The Dunedin sample is probably the most intensively studied cohort in the world and therefore the data is very good. The researchers, who I know well, are among the best epidemiologists in the world. Therefore, although one should never be convinced by a single study, I take the findings very seriously.

"There are a lot of clinical and educational anecdotal reports that cannabis users tend to be less successful in their educational achievement, marriages and occupations. It is of course part of folklore among young people that some heavy users of cannabis seem to gradually lose their abilities and end up achieving much less than one would have anticipated. This study provides one explanation as to why this might be the case."

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Glasgow health board reports 358% rise in legal high hospital cases


Scotland's largest health board has reported a 358% rise in the number of young people needing emergency treatment after taking legal highs.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde there were 43 admissions in 2011/2012 compared to 12 the previous year.

It many cases, patients only survived after "urgent specialist treatment".

The figures cover Glasgow's Royal and Western Infirmaries, Inverclyde Royal Hospital, Vale of Leven Hospital and Paisley's Royal Alexandra Hospital.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (GGC) said that the majority of the 43 admissions - 30 men and 13 women - came from the 19 to 35 age group.

Glasgow Royal Infirmary senior specialty doctor in emergency medicine, Dr Richard Stevenson said: "When these patients arrive we can only treat the symptoms - because we don't know what they have taken and neither do they.

"The symptoms are a very fast heartbeat, high blood pressure and muscles beginning to break down leading to a very high risk of having a stroke or heart attack. They also have very altered perception which can be very dangerous and makes it difficult to help or treat them."

Dr Stevenson said legal highs cause "an imbalance in the brain which overrides its usual pattern".

This can lead to body temperature increasing to 40 degrees, bringing a risk of blood clotting, muscles dying and organs shutting down.

So far, no deaths have been reported, but Dr Stevenson said that if the "steep rise in admissions" continued it was only a matter of time until fatalities occurred.

The medic added: "The main problem with legal highs is that you just don't know what you are getting and these chemicals can interact very badly with prescribed medications - someone taking antidepressants could find it a lethal combination.

"Many of those patients we see and talk to do not regard themselves as drug users - they seem to think there is less risk with so-called legal highs which they regard as recreational drugs.

"The medical teams who treat them see all too often how dangerous and lethal these chemicals really are - the effects on the body are devastating."

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Truckers driving on Class A drugs to 'relieve boredom'


A culture of Class A drug taking is common among some drivers working in the UK road haulage business, say industry insiders.

Truck drivers are resorting to cocaine, speed and ecstasy to help keep themselves awake on long journeys. Drug testing firms say to have 10% of drivers in an haulage firm test positive for drugs was "not unusual".

Road safety minister Mike Penning insists Britain's roads are among the safest in the world.

One lorry driver speaking to the BBC's 5 Live Investigates programme, who works for a major international haulage company, claims he regularly sees drivers use ecstasy, cannabis, speed and cocaine to relieve the boredom of lengthy shifts.

The experienced driver had tried to raise the issue with managers at his firm but said that nobody wanted to take responsibility.

The driver, who spoke anonymously, says fellow drivers have in the past veered off motorways or overturned, and in some instances were not even able to remember the incident afterwards.

In one incident the insider was told about, a heavily drugged-up driver ploughed into workmen's vehicles by the side of a motorway.

When questioned by the police the driver was only tested for alcohol and he was not arrested.

"They are basically taking a recreational drug like ecstasy and speed to keep themselves awake because of the distances involved and because boredom just kicks in," said the driver.

That was backed up by a third testing firm which revealed a company that employs around 5,000 courier drivers, found around 10% of its drivers tested positive for illegal drugs.

Another insider who assesses risk for major companies told the BBC how one firm tested 300 young van drivers in their 20s, and more than 40 of them tested positive for illegal drugs.

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Concern Over Rise in Mephedrone Use


Concerns over the dramatic rise in the use of mephedrone are intensifying as drug workers report seeing more children using the drug.

In the last few days police in South Wales, where figures issued last month show offences linked to mephedrone use had increased by more than 400% in 12 months, have issued warnings to parents and schools after a 15-year-old boy was taken to hospital following use of the illegal drug.

Growing anecdotal evidence coming from those working to help people with addictions suggests that the stimulant, which is cheap and easily obtained, is being used by younger people as it becomes increasingly prevalent across the U.K.

Workers at the drug charity Turning Point are working with one girl in Maidenhead, Berkshire, who became a regular user of mephedrone at the age of 12 after being introduced to it by her 14-year-old sister. At first scared by her sister's drug use, the girl was persuaded to try it.

"I had never done drugs before and I remember the adrenaline running through my body. My heart started racing with excitement and nerves. I fainted and remember my sister holding me up. A few seconds later I got up and felt amazing. Because I was a gymnastic I started doing flips everywhere and was having the time of my life. I did more and more, so I can't remember the rest until I got home. My sister and her friends hadn't warned me about the comedown and I was crying my eyes out, feeling like I wanted to die."

But within months she and another friend were taking "drone" every weekend. "It got so bad we started stealing money from our parents and one time my friend even stole £100 from her dad's bank account. We were hurting everyone around us, but we couldn't care less as long as we were having a good time. I was so unhealthy; being awake from Friday morning till Sunday night was not good. My face was grey and I had constant bags under my eyes. I would chew my lips so much from gurning they would bleed.

"I wasn't just getting into trouble in school, I was arguing at home too. On my 14th birthday we walked out of school and went and bought a gram of drone and did a half-gram line."

Theresa Allen, the girl's key worker, said: "It shows just how accessible this drug is becoming to young people. While 12 is still relatively rare, we are seeing a lot of 14- and 15-year-olds. We're seeing children using it inside schools and we're working with schools so they can recognise it. Children will be very chatty, very euphoric and there can be a blue tinge around the fingers and mouth, because something about it appears to affect the blood supply.

"That's not to say that older adults aren't also using it, but when we don't know anything about the long-term effects of this drug we should be especially concerned about young people who have young, still growing bodies. "It's chemically made, so you don't know what's in it. It's promoted as plant fertiliser or 'bath salts' or whatever but it's a bunch of chemicals chucked together, it's a short-lived high and it's proving to be very addictive indeed and at only £10 a bag it's obviously appealing to young people."

Initially a "legal high", with people buying it in shops and from websites that listed it as plant food, mephedrone was classified as a class B substance in April 2010.

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Cannabis trade worse than that of Class A drugs, senior police officer warns


Sentences for the growing and selling of cannabis must be toughened to stem a growing tide in gang-related violence, a senior police officer has warned.

Assistant chief constable Andy Ward of Merseyside police said hardened criminals were taking advantage of more lenient penalties for cannabis dealing compared with drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine and heroin.

He warned that there had been an "explosion" in cannabis production and said it was now causing more problems for the police than the trade in some class A narcotics.

The North West region in particular has already seen the consequences of a rise in tension between criminal gangs, with a surge in the number of shootings in recent months.

Mr Ward, who chairs the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit, said gangs were attracted to the lucrative cannabis market because they saw it as less risky both in terms of getting caught and also the punishments they might receive if convicted.

But he said the violence that accompanied the drug trade was just as extreme, with criminals willing to wound and kill to protect their corner of the market.

Seizures of cannabis in recent years have risen steadily in some areas, with one operation involving six forces resulting in a haul of the drug with a street value of almost £9 million.

Criminal gangs are also recruiting cannabis "farmers" who grow the drug in large quantities, in carefully controlled conditions. Some use sophisticated "hydroponic" growing systems to increase the yield and strength of the drug.

But the equipment is relatively cheap compared with the potential profits, and factories can easily be set up in converted lofts or garages.

Over the past three years, more than 5,000 cannabis factories, containing almost 350,000 plants, have been identified by police in the North West alone. Police have seized drugs with a value thought to be in excess of £500 million, but many hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of cannabis is believed to find its way on to the streets undetected.

Mr Ward said: "There has been an explosion in the market for cannabis. Unlike class A drugs, which the criminals can't make themselves, there is the opportunity to grow cannabis in the bathrooms or bedrooms of houses. They can make a lot of money quickly at less risk [to themselves] and less risk in terms of sentencing.

"Criminals who have previously been involved in something else are drifting into the cannabis world … The amount of money being made by criminals should be reflected in the sentencing."

Mr Ward, who also heads Merseyside's Matrix Unit, which was set up to combat drug and gun crime, said there was a clear link between shootings and the cannabis trade. He said: "A lot of these shootings are linked to activity around cannabis. We are seeing big increases in cannabis production on Merseyside. Individual groups are fighting turf wars … We have huge issues around cannabis."

While sentencing guidelines allow for heavy penalties for the growth and sale of cannabis, in practice sentences are often much more lenient than those involved in the production of class A narcotics.

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Children of Parents Dependent on Alcohol 'need more support'


The government should pay as much attention to the parents who drink too much as it does to those who misuse illegal drugs, says a report.

Research carried out for the Children's Commissioner for England for the report called Silent voices, suggests more than 90,000 babies in the UK live with a problematic drinker.

Maggie Atkinson said large numbers of affected children received little support from social services. But the government said its reforms would help identify problem drinkers.

Figures suggest more than a fifth of all children in the UK, approximately 2.5 million, are living with a hazardous drinker, defined as someone whose alcoholic intake could have harmful consequences for themselves or others.

Ms Atkinson is urging the government to give as much attention to alcohol abuse among parents as to other forms of drug misuse, and to train the relevant authorities to spot the signs of alcoholism in families earlier.

She said alcohol abuse by parents harmed more children than the misuse of illegal drugs, yet the problem was not taken as seriously. She said action was needed to prevent more children "losing their childhood".

A girl in Nottinghamshire told the authors of the report: "My brother, who is 10, says he wants to end it all, my mum also says she wants to die. She really needs to talk to someone but there is no-one? I am not getting any sleep. I am scared what I will find when I wake up or what might happen whilst I am sleeping."

The OCC commissioned the Community Research Company to look into the problem and its research suggested 79,000 babies aged under one in England are living with a parent who is classified as a problematic drinker, which they extrapolated to 93,500 babies in the UK.

The research also suggests 26,000 babies in England are living with a parent who is a "dependent drinker", which is equivalent to 31,000 across the UK.

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Turning Point call for A and E specialists


Leading health and social care provider Turning Point is calling on the NHS to put alcohol specialists in A and E departments.


Jackie Kennedy, Turning Point's Director of Substance Misuse Services, says this would identify dependent drinkers and get them into treatment quicker. Her comments are in response to new figures showing that A and E staff dealt with 1.2 million admissions last year- an increase of more than 50,000.

She says: "These new statistics are yet further evidence of the importance of the government treating alcohol misuse seriously, and investing in alcohol treatment provision.

"Alcohol-related illness is a huge problem in this country, and one which is on the rise. More and more people are being admitted to A and E as a result of excessive drinking yet all too often, alcohol-related problems don't get picked up. This means people are likely to be turning up to A and E again and again without having their needs addressed, adding to NHS costs.

"We know from the support we provide in Gateshead A and E that patients benefit from brief alcohol intervention services in hospitals. By having staff based at A and E they are able to give patients advice and information, alcohol screening, health and unit awareness, as well as signposting to local and national alcohol services. Interventions at this stage have proven to help people understand the problems caused by excessive binge drinking and reduce the 'revolving door' of admissions into A and E. Service like this should be replicated across the country.'

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Helium and barbiturates contribute to drug death statistics


Inert gas helium and barbiturates led to more deaths last year than ecstasy, cannabis, mephedrone and GHB, figures show.

The inert gas helium and barbiturate contributed to more deaths last year than ecstasy, cannabis, mephedrone and GHB, official figures show.

According to the Office for National Statistics the number of deaths mentioning barbiturates increased from six in 2007 to 37 in 2011, the highest number since 1996, despite the number of prescriptions for barbiturates more than halving over this period.

Over the same period, deaths involving helium have risen from two to 42. By comparison there were just seven cannabis-related deaths last year while ecstasy was responsible for 13 deaths. Cocaine claimed the lives of 112 people.

Almost all of those who died taking barbiturate and helium were recorded as suicides. Helium in particular has seen a steep rise in its use. Between 1993 and 2007 just 18 people died using the gas. The gas has become a feature of both literature and public policy debate in the last 20 years as the row over right-to-die has become more intense.

Overall, there were 1,772 male and 880 female drug poisoning deaths – involving both legal and illegal drugs – in 2011, a 6% decrease since 2010 for males and a 3% increase for females.

Over half of all the deaths related to drug poisoning involved opiates. In 2011 heroin or morphine, were involved in 596 deaths.

However, there has been a fall in deaths involving heroin or another opiate. For men the mortality rate has fallen sharply in the last two years, down from 27.9 deaths per million population in 2009 to 17.1 in 2011. This is a 39% fall and is the lowest rate since 1997.

The decrease in deaths has many reasons but ONS points to evidence of a "heroin drought" in the UK, "with shortages in the availability of heroin continuing in some areas in 2011-12" with a result that the street purity of opiates sold has dropped.

Despite fears from drug workers that the low purity levels would lead to overdoses, the reduced supply seems to have led to less demand.

Results from the British Crime Survey, the ONS says, suggest there was a significant decline in the proportion of 16-to-59-year-olds reporting use of heroin in the last month between 2009-10 and 2010-11. This is backed up by evidence from the NHS's National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse which said that the number of adults newly entering treatment for heroin and crack use has fallen by 15% in two years.

"[The data] suggests that this decline is probably due to reduced demand rather than any shortfall in services. These factors may explain the decline in deaths involving heroin/morphine that has been seen over the last couple of years," said the ONS.

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