Record rise in older cannabis addicts seeking help: Number of over-55s in treatment soars by 777%


Record rise in older cannabis addicts seeking help: Number of over-55s being treated for misuse soars by 777% amid warning ‘stronger skunk’ has led to more mental health issues

  • Data analysed by The Times show 777 per cent increase in treatment for over 55s
  • There has been a 22 per cent decrease among those aged between 18 and 24
  • It comes as experts warned about increase dangers of ‘stronger skunk cannabis’


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A record number of over 55s in the UK are seeking treatment for cannabis addiction, amid fears ‘stronger’ skunk strains are leading to more mental health issues among Britons.

Newly analysed NHS data shows there has been a 777 per cent increase in the number of people in older age groups receiving substance misuse treatment for cannabis in the last 15 years.

But while treatment figures have increased among older groups, there has been a 22 per cent decrease among those aged between 18 and 24 over the same period, according to the analysis.

Experts warn the rise could be due to people in older age groups growing up in a ‘permissive culture with a lack of harm awareness of drugs’, compared with today, where information on illegal substances is freely and widely available.

It comes after separate figures, released last month, revealed how 56 per cent of people in treatment for non-opiate drug misuse – including for cannabis, crack cocaine and ecstasy – across last year were over 40 years old. 

It also comes as support groups continue to warn of the dangers of extra strong ‘skunk’ cannabis, which they say can significantly increase the risk of mental health issues such as psychosis.

The latest figures meanwhile will cast further doubt on a new plan by Labour’s Sadiq Khan to decriminalise cannabis in some parts of London. 

The London Mayor says the scheme will ‘divert young people who are found with a small amount of cannabis away from the criminal justice system and instead provide help and support’.

But the trial scheme is at odds with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to crackdown on drugs, while Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer last week also appeared to oppose Mr Khan’s scheme by making clear he is ‘not in favour of decriminalisation’.

NHS figures, analysed by The Times , show there has been a 777 per cent increase in the number of people in older age groups receiving substance misuse treatment for cannabis in the last 15 years

NHS figures, analysed by The Times , show there has been a 777 per cent increase in the number of people in older age groups receiving substance misuse treatment for cannabis in the last 15 years

NHS figures, analysed by The Times , show there has been a 777 per cent increase in the number of people in older age groups receiving substance misuse treatment for cannabis in the last 15 years

Researchers at King's College London found that the problem with 'skunk' is now so widespread that nearly a third of psychosis cases in London are caused by the drug

Researchers at King's College London found that the problem with 'skunk' is now so widespread that nearly a third of psychosis cases in London are caused by the drug

Researchers at King’s College London found that the problem with ‘skunk’ is now so widespread that nearly a third of psychosis cases in London are caused by the drug

Cannabis is most widely used illegal drug in the UK – but it can cause a myriad of health problems

Cannabis (also known as marijuana, weed, pot, dope or grass) is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK.

The effects of cannabis can vary a lot from person to person. It can also vary depending on how much or how often it’s taken and what it contains.

Some examples include: Feeling chilled out, relaxed and happy; laughing more or become more talkative; feeling hunger pangs (‘the munchies’; feeling drowsy, tired or lethargic; feeling faint or sick; having problems with memory or concentrating; experiencing mild hallucinations; feeling confused, anxious or paranoid. 

Cannabis and mental health

Regular cannabis use increases the risk of developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia.

A psychotic illness is one where you have hallucinations (seeing things that are not really there) and delusions (believing things that are not really true).

The risk of developing a psychotic illness is higher in people who: start using cannabis at a young age; smoke stronger types, such as skunk; smoke it regularly; use it for a long time; smoke cannabis and also have other risk factors for schizophrenia, such as a family history of the illness

Cannabis also increases the risk of a relapse in people who already have schizophrenia, and it can make psychotic symptoms worse. 

Other risks of regularly using cannabis can include: feeling wheezy or out of breath; developing an uncomfortable or painful cough; making symptoms of asthma worse in people with asthma; reduced ability to drive or operate machinery safely

If you drive while under the influence of cannabis, you’re more likely to be involved in an accident. This is one reason why drug driving, like drink driving, is illegal.

Source: NHS 

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It comes after data released by the Office for Health, Improvement and Disparities (OHID) last month revealed how there were 275,896 adults in contact with drug and alcohol services between April 2020 and March 2021.

The figure, which includes treatment for other drugs such as cocaine and heroin, is a small rise compared to the previous year, when there were 270,705 referrals.

Over half (51 per cent) of the adults in treatment were there for problems with opiates – such as heroin – the largest substance treatment group.

According to the data, people in treatment for alcohol alone make up the next largest group (28 per cent) of all adults in treatment. 

However the figures show there was also a nine per cent increase in the non-opiate group, which includes cannabis and other drugs such as crack and ecstasy.

Meanwhile the OHID data also showed a five per cent increase in entrants for cannabis treatment, 25,944 in 2019 to 2020 to 27,304 in 2021.

The biggest groups in terms of treatment for all drugs and alcohol meanwhile were the 40-44 year olds, followed by the 35-39 year olds and the 45-49 year olds.

Treatment among the over 50s also remained significantly higher collectively than those aged between 18-29.  

Speaking to the Times, who analysed the NHS data to reveal the 777 per cent increase in treatment for the over-55s, Dr Tony Rao, a consultant psychiatrist and an expert on substance misuse among older people, said : ‘We have seen a sharp rise in the number of people in older people’s mental services with cannabis misuse. 

‘There is a cohort of people over the age of 55 who grew up in quite a permissive culture with a lack of harm awareness of substances. 

‘As people have gotten older they’ve mostly not reduced the levels of cannabis or alcohol they consume as previous generations did. 

‘There are also people who may have stopped using substances but then started again once they’ve retired.’

Support group Marijuana Anonymous (MA) meanwhile told the Times there had been an increase in attendance at its meeting particularly from the ‘older age bracket’. 

‘The prolonged use of stronger, harder skunk has created more mental health issues and I think we can correlate that with the influx of older people seeking help,’ he said.

It comes as a top psychologist warned earlier this month how highly-potent cannabis is not being taken seriously enough by some liberal-minded parents, who would rather see their teens smoke pot than drink alcohol.

Sir Robin Murray, 77, a professor of Psychiatric Research at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP), King’s College London, said around a third of the psychosis patents he sees at his practice in south London are caused by use of high-strength skunk.

Sir Robin Murray (pictured) , 77, a professor of Psychiatric Research at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP), King's College London, said around a third of the psychosis patents he sees at his practice in south London are caused by use of high-strength skunk

Sir Robin Murray (pictured) , 77, a professor of Psychiatric Research at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP), King's College London, said around a third of the psychosis patents he sees at his practice in south London are caused by use of high-strength skunk

Sir Robin Murray (pictured) , 77, a professor of Psychiatric Research at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP), King’s College London, said around a third of the psychosis patents he sees at his practice in south London are caused by use of high-strength skunk

It comes as London is set to relax drug laws by no longer prosecuting young people caught in possession of cannabis - offering them educational courses on the drug's dangers instead (Pictured: Cannabis farm which was busted in Coventry in June last year)

It comes as London is set to relax drug laws by no longer prosecuting young people caught in possession of cannabis - offering them educational courses on the drug's dangers instead (Pictured: Cannabis farm which was busted in Coventry in June last year)

It comes as London is set to relax drug laws by no longer prosecuting young people caught in possession of cannabis – offering them educational courses on the drug’s dangers instead (Pictured: Cannabis farm which was busted in Coventry in June last year)

What is psychosis?

Psychosis is when people lose some contact with reality. This might involve seeing or hearing things that other people cannot see or hear (hallucinations) and believing things that are not actually true (delusions). 

The two main symptoms of psychosis are:

Hallucinations – where a person hears, sees and, in some cases, feels, smells or tastes things that do not exist outside their mind but can feel very real to the person affected by them; a common hallucination is hearing voices

Delusions – where a person has strong beliefs that are not shared by others; a common delusion is someone believing there’s a conspiracy to harm them

The combination of hallucinations and delusional thinking can cause severe distress and a change in behaviour.

Experiencing the symptoms of psychosis is often referred to as having a psychotic episode.

Source: NHS

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The expert said the cases mostly involve young people, who often suffer from debilitating paranoia and hallucinations.

He told The Times: ‘I think we’re now 100 per cent sure that cannabis is one of the causes of a schizophrenia-like psychosis.

‘If we could abolish the consumption of skunk we would have 30 per cent less patients [in south London] and we might make a better job of looking after the patients we have.’

It comes after he was part of the first team of researchers who proved a link between cannabis and mental illness among teenagers in the early 2000s – with many papers backing up his findings ever since.

Only two years ago, a study found that south London had the highest incidence of psychosis in Europe – and cannabis was said to be the largest contributing factor.

The investigation, overseen by Sir Robin and published in The Lancet Psychiatry, found that those who smoked high-potency skunk were five times more likely to develop psychosis than those who did not smoke it.

According to the findings, rates of psychosis in London could be slashed by 30 per cent if skunk was taken off the streets.

Despite its potentially harmful effects, Sir Robin welcomed London’s plans to end prosecution of young people found in possession of cannabis.

The trial policy, set to be adopted by the Metropolitan Police and backed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, would run in the boroughs of Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley and apply to those aged 18 to 24, according to the Telegraph.

It would see carriers of the drug offered educational courses on its dangers rather than criminal prosecution.

A spokesman for Mr Khan said similar schemes were already being used in other parts of the UK, adding that it would ‘divert young people who are found with a small amount of cannabis away from the criminal justice system and instead provide help and support’ to cut reoffending.

Sadiq Khan is reportedly set to decriminalise drugs in London and wants to end the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis

Sadiq Khan is reportedly set to decriminalise drugs in London and wants to end the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis

Sadiq Khan is reportedly set to decriminalise drugs in London and wants to end the prosecution of young people caught with cannabis

The Labour leader insisted he was against softening the law after it was revealed a proposed pilot programme would see young adults caught with the Class B drug offered speeding course-style classes or counselling instead of arrest.

The Labour leader insisted he was against softening the law after it was revealed a proposed pilot programme would see young adults caught with the Class B drug offered speeding course-style classes or counselling instead of arrest.

The Labour leader insisted he was against softening the law after it was revealed a proposed pilot programme would see young adults caught with the Class B drug offered speeding course-style classes or counselling instead of arrest.

But asked about the plan after delivering a speech in Birmingham last week, Labour leader Sir Keir said: ‘On the drugs legislation, I’ve said a number of times and I will say again: I’m not in favour of us changing the law or decriminalisation. I’m very clear about that.’

Meanwhile, Sir Robin said he wants more clarification over the scheme.

He said: ‘My questions will be: where will they get the counsellors who know anything about risks of cannabis?

‘What will happen if they don’t accept the counselling or go back to cannabis use?

‘And will it be accompanied by any education regarding the risks of cannabis — this is by far the most important thing.’

He added: ‘Because Lewisham is one of the proposed boroughs [where the scheme could first be introduced] we will be able to track the effects on psychiatric problems secondary to cannabis use — addiction, suicide attempts and psychosis.

‘But we need also to track road traffic accidents, street violence and visits to A&E departments for cannabis problems.’

Sir Robin said policy changes in other countries provided potential warnings for Britain.

In the state of Colorado in the US, there are now cannabis products available which contain more than 70 per cent THC – or tetrahydrocannabinol – the compound which gives users a high.

For comparison, traditional weed from the 1960s contained around 3 per cent or less THC, while the average in Europe and North America today is 10 to 15 per cent, according to an article by Sir Robin in JAMA Psychiatry.

Meanwhile, a study in Denmark found that alongside a rise in THC potency, cannabis-associated schizophrenia has increased by up to 400 per cent over the past two decades, reported the Times.

Sir Robin’s study in 2019 warned that 94 per cent of all cannabis available on the streets of London was in the form of skunk. 

Researchers from King’s College London studied 2,100 people in 11 cities in Europe and South America in the biggest study of its kind.

They found that the link with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and paranoid delusion was strongest in London and Amsterdam – the two cities where high-potency cannabis is most commonly available. 

Sir Robin said at the time: ‘If you are going to legalise, unless you want to pay for a lot more psychiatric beds and a lot more psychiatrists then you need to devise a system in a way that will not increase the consumption and will not increase the potency. Because that is what has happened in the US states where there has been legalisation for recreational use.

‘The critical question is whether medicinal use remains medicinal. The problem in California and Canada was that medicinal use became a synonym for recreational use.

‘You could go on the internet and tell a doctor, “I have headaches, I have back pain, I feel better if I have cannabis”. The main reason they legalised it was to try to control the amount of so-called medicinal use there, hoping that there would be a decrease in the use.’  

The research, published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, found that skunk – with a THC level of more than 10 per cent – increased the odds of psychosis 4.8-fold in a person who smoked every day compared with someone who never used the drug. 

Using it more than once a week was less dangerous, but still increased the risk 1.6-fold.

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