Cannabis class

With cannabis problems more prevalent than ever, Edinburgh charity Crew has devised a masterclass to share knowledge. Fergus Boden reports

Why are there are so few opportunities to learn about cannabis when it is the most widely used illicit substance and referrals for treatment are rocketing? Crew held a cannabis masterclass to discuss cannabis use and treatment today, including the increasing number of referrals, the content of substances and the role of synthetic cannabinoids. 

The masterclass grew out of discussions between Dr Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist, addiction specialist and founder of the Global Drug Survey, and Crew staff, who put forward the idea at Crew’s National Substance Use Symposium (CREWSUS) in March 2012. With 130 people attending from various backgrounds, Crew hope it can now be rolled out through the rest of Scotland and the UK. 

Dr Adam Winstock launched the plenary, explaining some of the scientific differences between hash, traditional herbal cannabis and the dominant high potency forms known as skunk. His presentation questioned whether people knew the strength of what they were taking: ‘It’s not like going to the bar and saying I’ll have a pint of lager or a double scotch and knowing you’ll get roughly the same amount of active ingredient.’

He also touched on one of the other recurring themes of the day – the development of synthetic cannabinoids and the comparison between these and cannabis. Adam gave an insight into people’s perceptions of synthetics as ‘more likely to affect memory, cause paranoia and be more harmful to lungs,’ and highlighted research showing that 93 per cent of people who used substances would still prefer cannabis to a legal high.

The next speaker, Crew’s Katy MacLeod, addressed some of the matters surrounding recreational drug use. She gave insight into how cannabis was one of the most common substances used by Crew’s clients and spoke about some of the problems a recreational user might face. Katy also explained some techniques for reducing the effects of cannabis use, such as setting S.M.A.R.T goals with people, helping them track their patterns of use and identifying triggers. 

Synthetic cannabinoids were the subject of Dr Malcolm Bruce’s presentation. He shared his concerns that synthetics hadn’t been around long enough for anyone to pass judgment, but said they had a less credible track record than cannabis and, like so many novel drugs, were promoted to get around the law and be marketable to young people. He warned that the current approach to making these substances illegal was prompting the creation of new, potentially more dangerous, synthetics to get through loopholes in the law.

With levels of referrals for cannabis-related issues going up – despite this year’s Global Drugs Survey showing no rise in the number of people using the drug – it was no surprise that the help available for people using cannabis became one of the biggest topics of the day. 

A panel of service providers and psychiatrists offered their insights. Dr Adam Winstock gave a medical view on how to manage cannabis withdrawal. The take-away message was to encourage clinicians to defer the diagnosis and prescription of antidepressants until the person had been off cannabis for two to three weeks, because they often didn’t need these medications, and early side effects of some drugs ­– such as SSRIs like Prozac – could worsen cannabis withdrawal. He reminded people that the cannabis drugs meter ( was a simple way for people to think about their use and harm reduction.

Dr Malcolm Bruce explained that while some people using cannabis did present themselves to NHS cannabis services, the numbers were low, which was why the role of service providers like Crew was so important in filling the gap. 

The final presentation of the day came from Mike Linnell, director of communications for Lifeline, who gave some of the history of the media’s reporting of drug use – including its tendency towards hysteria.

One of the main aims of the event was to bring together people from different backgrounds to discuss some of the issues they faced and find ways to deal with them, and interactive workshops – such as Lisa Waiting’s session on cannabis and young people – were beneficial in this respect. Information sharing and networking were equally important and Crew hopes to offer a limited number of cannabis masterclasses across the UK over the next 12 months.

Fergus Boden is a final year PR & marketing student at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, currently on a placement with Crew. Crew is an Edinburgh-based charity which offers non-judgemental support, advice and information on drugs and specialises in support relating to non-opiate substances. 

Crew Substance Use Symposium (CREWSUS) is in November in Edinburgh with keynote speaker Fiona Measham. To book a place, or to host training in your area, contact CREW –

Photos by Cordelia Toennies.