An interview with Ian Hamilton, Lecturer at the University of York, specialising in addiction and mental health
What started your interest in cannabis?
I trained as a mental health nurse and couldn’t help but notice the impact that cannabis seemed to have on patients I met who had psychosis. Despite the effect cannabis had on their symptoms, most patients described distinct benefits from using the drug. This sparked my interest in the benefits as well as risks of cannabis use. I retained this interest when I moved from clinical practice into academia fifteen years ago, and this clinical experience continues to drive my scholarly work.
You take a particularly pragmatic approach to your research. Could you tell us about how you go about gathering data for your projects?
There is a considerable amount of data about cannabis which is available for anyone to access, such as reports from the ONS. I think this type of data is not used to its full potential and could help inform policy decisions as well as health services, for example. In addition to this type of data, I also collect qualitative data with academic colleagues from treatment settings or broader samples of the population. Blending this qualitative data with quantitative data provides the optimum view for a cannabis project.
How well funded are cannabis research projects, and how can the research community access more investment to pay for valuable studies?
Studies exploring the correlation between drug use and health have very limited funding. The main funding bodies in the UK are bound to have problems when they fund research involving drugs. This is understandable as this position has probably been influenced by the policy of prohibition and the idea that drugs including cannabis are not good for people. This has left us with a skewed evidence base in relation to cannabis, where the majority of research investigates problems such as cannabis psychosis rather than benefits or pleasure experience by using the drug.
In the era of ‘fake news’, how much misinformation do you think there is surrounding cannabis topics? How detrimental is this and why?
Drugs including cannabis always make for good copy or broadcast, usually this is in relation to the latest ‘drug panic’. For recreational cannabis the recurring story is increasing potency, although evidence of this is limited. For medicinal cannabis there is a real danger of raising expectations of what can be treated or ‘cured’.
As with many aspects of reporting on health, some research insight is useful particularly if risk is being reported, for example there is an association between cannabis use and psychosis. But a causal link has not been established in the way that tobacco and lung cancer has.
With cannabis and cannabis-derived products becoming more widespread, what societal impact do you expect? Positive, negative or neutral?
Any regulatory change that opens up access to cannabis products will simultaneously produce negative and positive outcomes on the population. Some of these outcomes will take years before an accurate assessment can be made. For example, we won’t know for some time what effect regulating access to cannabis has on population rates of use as these fluctuate over time even when access is restricted. Likewise the economic impact will also take time and require sophisticated investigation, as there can be unintended consequences when introducing regulatory frameworks which aim to raise money from the sale of cannabis products. We have seen this with taxes levied in relation to THC content or quantity of cannabis products, where savvy suppliers simply circumvent this tax by charging for T-shirts which are sold with ‘free’ cannabis products’.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of opening up access to cannabis is that research into the drug should become easier, meaning that evidence of benefits as well as problems improve meaning we are all better informed.
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