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06/02/2008 00:00:00

UK: Cannabis dealers prey on hospitals

Drug dealers are preying on patients in mental health units by
pretending that they are friends and selling them cannabis, a government
health chief revealed last night.

Louis Appleby, national director for mental health at the Department of
Health, told The Times it was “well known” that dealers found their way
into mental health units and exploited patients who were seriously ill.
Some hospitals have brought in sniffer dog patrols to scare dealers off
but staff say that they have no rights to stop patients and friends
coming in or out, or to search anyone who may be carrying drugs.

Professor Appleby’s comments came as it was revealed that the potent
“skunk” form of the drug now accounts for up to 80 per cent of cannabis
sold on the street — up from 15 per cent six years ago. The latest
figures were revealed yesterday at a meeting of the Advisory Council on
the Misuse of Drugs, a government body that is considering whether
cannabis should be returned to Class B status with tougher penalties for
those caught in possession.

The Government has indicated its support for reclassification, as
revealed by The Times last month, amid growing concerns about the health
effects of cannabis. It has been linked to an increased risk of
psychotic illness and other associated mental health problems.

In some cases, Professor Appleby said, the dealers pretended they were
known or related to the patients to get access to the wards. In others
they were known to the patients, either as a friend or as their regular

Marcus Roberts, policy director of the mental illness charity MIND, said
there was no doubt that drug dealing ocurred “on a lot of wards”
throughout the country. “Drugs coming on to wards is a significant issue
for health workers as they can impede and setback remedies and treatment
in their unit,” he said.

Mr Roberts added that on occasions patients might get access to more
cannabis than they needed and sell it on to others on the wards. The
problem also occurred with mentally ill patients being looked after in
the community, where drugs were even more accessible. Although the issue
was evidently widespread it was hard to quantify as no data had been
collected on the issue, he said.

Professor Appleby argued that most of the dealers would not be from big
crime organisations and were likely to be dealing small amounts of
cannabis. The Department of Health was encouraging NHS trusts to have
greater communication with the police, but also to ensure that
cannabis-using patients were not criminalised — a concern for staff who
are anxious not to breach patient confidentiality.

A police source said yesterday that they “would of course investigate if
an allegation about drug-dealing in hospitals was received”.

Giving evidence to the Advisory Council yesterday, Simon Byrne,
spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that his
organisation supported moving the drug back to the higher category. This
would make ordinary possession of the drug an arrestable offence.

Mr Byrne, who is Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, added: “We
have raided over 2,000 farms in the last 12 months. They will typically
contain 400 plants, although the biggest we have found had 20,000
plants. The reason that this has exploded is the relationship between
risk and reward. Because it is a Class C drug and the risks are lower,
criminals are taking advantage of that.”

Samples of cannabis seized by police in the last few weeks show that
skunk, or sinsemilla, has a huge share of the market and is squeezing
out other types of cannabis. Cannabis resin now accounts for 20 per cent
of use, compared with 60-70 per cent in 2002; “traditional” herbal
cannabis now accounts for only 5 per cent, compared with 15 per cent six
years ago.

Les King, a Home Office adviser, told the Advisory Council: “The large
increase in the market share of sinsemilla appears to have come about in
the last few years. It is now clearly the dominant product. It coincides
with the rise of these large organised criminal concerns run by the

David Potter, of GW Pharmaceuticals, who has led a separate survey of
samples from several police forces, said he had found a similar swing
towards stronger cannabis. “It’s like a wave moving towards the more
potent end,” he told the council.

Professor Appleby, who also gave evidence to the Advisory Council
yesterday, added: “I think we, as health professionals, have for
laudable reasons . . . been guilty of complacency on the issue of cannabis.

“Now the evidence is pointing towards cannabis as a cause of severe
mental illness.”

Potent variety

— Skunk is a type of cannabis containing two or three times the normal
amount of THC, the active ingredient

— It is named after its strong smell

— The maximum penalty for possession is two years in prison plus an
unlimited fine, although police are more likely to let first-time
offenders off with a warning

— The maximum penalty for supply of skunk is 14 years in prison plus an
unlimited fine

— Skunk costs about £200 per ounce

— There is evidence that skunk can trigger mental health problems, such
as schizophrenia. It can also lower sperm count in men and suppress
ovulation in women

Source: Frank

Author: The Times via UKCIA

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