Children as young as nine have turned to a north Cumbrian drug and alcohol charity as they battle to kick a cannabis habit.

There are fears that the scale of the drug’s damaging impact on young people across the county remains hidden, with many wrongly believing the class B drug poses no risk.

Experts say that potent modern strains of cannabis can have a devastating effect on youngsters, leaving them sleep-deprived, paranoid, and aggressive.

There is also evidence linking early cannabis use and poor mental health.

The courts in Carlisle and Workington have regularly dealt with young adults prosecuted after dabbling in the drug.

One schools boss described levels of cannabis use among youngsters in Carlisle as “alarming” while in west Cumbria a drug charity has worked with primary school children affected by the drug.

But an innovative project at one school is tackling the problem head on.

Drug expert Kris Johnson, 35, from the Stop Smoking Cannabis Service, has teamed up with Progress Schools, a private provider with children who have struggled with mainstream schooling.

Since January he has been holding regular workshops in Carlisle with children hooked on the drug, helping them to recognise its dangers.

“I’ve been working in Carlisle with children aged 11, 12, and 13, though there’s evidence nationally that children as young as eight use cannabis,” he said.

Cannabis plant “Over time, cannabis has come to be regarded as socially acceptable but that’s because the education about it hasn’t been very good. Research shows that using cannabis damages a young person’s emotional and mental development.

“It’s the most widely-used drug in the UK and its effects are devastating on users and their families. Nobody is properly collating this information but it’s a big problem – perhaps for as many as 60 per cent of young people.

“Sadly, the problem is prevalent among vulnerable and disadvantaged youngsters. Even worse are the myths about the drug being propagated among these groups – like the one that it’s a cure for cancer, which is complete rubbish.”

Kris described public attitudes towards the drug as chilling because they are so relaxed.

“It’s ridiculous that such a state exists. It’s contributing to the fact the drug is even being taken by children of primary school age.”

Kris added: “I’ve worked with about 20 young people in Carlisle and had some good results. Some have been able to go back into mainstream education.”

The sessions aim not to preach but to help youngsters kick the habit, said Kris.

He added: “What we do is share some of the truths about cannabis which we believe will help motivate anyone who wants to stop using it.

“We teach them about the consequences of their behaviour while taking the drug and try to get them to think about what they actually want to do with their lives.”

James Madine is chief executive with Progress Schools, in Victoria Place, Carlisle.

He said: “Since our school opened in Carlisle, we have become increasingly aware of the alarming level of cannabis usage among the city’s youth.

“In our role as providers of education for those who have been excluded from school and unable to thrive in conventional schools, we are seeing first-hand some of the problems facing disadvantaged and disengaged youngsters.

“Drugs figure prominently – and we are determined to do something positive about it. Working with Stop Smoking Cannabis means we can now reach these vulnerable young people.”

Helen Lawrie Helen Lawrie, from Cadas (Cumbria Alcohol and Drug Advisory Service), said: “The big issue is the strength of the cannabis used these days.

“Young people use it because it’s not seen as being a particularly dangerous substance.”

Jackie May, her colleague in west Cumbria, said: “Cannabis is problematic in the west, but popular among young people. They don’t see it as a problem; it’s a way of relaxing and having fun with peers.

“Some youngsters, (not many) do become mentally dependent upon cannabis and use it when stressed, or have a problem they feel they are unable to solve.

“This can then lead to low attendance at school, family crisis, and crime. An adolescent’s developing brain may be particularly vulnerable to lasting damage from the drug.

“The chances of developing mental health problems later in life is increased by using cannabis.

“I have worked with children from age nine upwards.”

She added that the long-term effects of any drug on children is harmful as the damage that can be caused is currently unknown.

The Cumbria Alcohol and Drug Advisory Service can be contacted on 01228 544140