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 dealer.
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 Vietnamese.”
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.”
— 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