Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Mental health lawyer warns against Cannabis use

Professor Daniel Howard pictured after his formal dinner talk

When he spoke at Warrane College on Wednesday 3 September 2014, the President of the NSW Mental Health Review Tribunal, Professor Daniel Howard SC, cautioned young people against experimenting with cannabis.

Professor Howard is a Professor of Law at the University of Wollongong and conjoint Associate Professor at the School of Psychiatry at UNSW, and has been a member of the Mental Health Review Tribunal since 2008. He is also co-author of “Crime and Mental Health Law in New South Wales“.

He said one of the unfortunate things about growing up in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s was witnessing the gradual development of a permissive attitude towards drug use.

“It became acceptable to smoke pot and other things and our society has become more and more awash with drugs,” he said.

“I have seen this throughout my whole professional life.  In my current role on the Tribunal I see case after case where people had their first episode of psychosis after smoking several cones of cannabis.

“I am not saying this happens to everyone.  It certainly doesn’t.  But if you have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, if you have a maiden aunt or somebody who has a mental illness, really think twice before you get involved in drugs because it’s well established now that cannabis, particularly the strong “skunk” and the hydroponic cannabis that is out there now — is far more potent than the cannabis that was available in the 1970’s.

“The stuff that was around in the ’70s was really pretty low in THC — the active ingredient in cannabis.  This hydroponic stuff now and the stuff that has been genetically engineered to be even stronger — “skunk” — is really potentially quite dangerous.”

Professor Howard explained that his work on the Mental Health Review Tribunal mainly involves helping to protect people’s civil liberties and ensuring that they receive proper psychiatric care in the mental health system.

Professor Howard also spoke of the changes to electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) since the days portrayed in the 1970’s film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

“Shock treatment now is modified with muscle relaxants and general anaesthetic and is a mainstream treatment for depression — a life-saving treatment,” he said.  “It doesn’t work for everyone but does in a lot of cases”.

Professor Howard said his views on many things had changed over the years from the views he had when he was at university in the 1970s and that it was good for young people to reflect on the fact that when they are older their own views about some things were likely to change.

Raising the issue of the war in Vietnam and the involvement of Australia and the United States in it, he said he now believed that it was not a just war.

“We all evolve as people, and I believe that war was not a just war,” he said.  “I feel that very strongly looking back.

“Life is a journey and it is good to reflect on your values now and be open to change as you go through life.  And take counsel when it is available to you.”

Speaking of his experience as a young articled clerk at the beginning of his career in the law, he advised residents that while they were still studying they should seize opportunities get practical experience in their profession.

He also said it was important to seek to change things that they believed were unjust.

In his own case, when he was completing his studies in the law he discovered that he could not be admitted as a solicitor in NSW because he was an American citizen at the time and the law at that time required a solicitor to be a British subject.  He had found a barrister, a family friend, who also felt the law was unjust and agreed to help him challenge it free of charge.

The existing law was based on the Act of Settlement 1701 and when the case went to the Court of Appeal, it was held to be too anachronistic for modern times and the admission rules were subsequently changed.

“That experience at the start of my career gave me a respect for the law because I realised what an engine for change it could be if it was used properly,” he said.

“That barrister was prepared to do it Pro bono.  It is really important to help your colleagues in your profession.”

Professor Howard urged students to embrace the philosophy of “carpe diem” — to seize the day, because life on this earth, he said, is fleeting.

He outlined the changes in direction he had taken in his own career, from being a solicitor, a defence barrister, a prosecutor, an academic and then moving into the area of mental health and the law.

“Don’t be afraid to change,” he said.  “Each profession has lots of different roads you can go down and don’t be afraid to take a fork in the road if you think you need a bit of a sea change in your career.  Try not to get stuck if you feel that maybe it would do you good to make a slight deviation.”

During the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Professor Howard emphasised the importance of lawyers taking legal aid cases and doing pro bono work.

He said that legal assistance was now very expensive and this was something that the legal community needed to address because if people were unable to afford to go to law they would lose respect for it.

He said at present Australia’s legal system was a “Rolls Royce system if you can afford it” and in the future he hoped to be able to agitate for change to make legal assistance more accessible for those who cannot presently afford it.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]