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Ignorant Haze Hides Dangers of Cannabis

Chris Middendorp

February 15, 2011

Teenagers especially need to be made aware that the drug isn't benign.

In two decades of supporting people who have drug and alcohol addictions, I've been astonished how rarely cannabis has come in for criticism. I couldn't count the number of times I've heard the contradictory declaration "I don't use drugs" from a person who is an inveterate cannabis smoker.

It's a widely held perception (certainly among people under 40) that marijuana, spliff, ganja, hooch, wacky tobaccy - call it what you will - is a substance no more deleterious than caffeine. I'm tired of hearing about the drug's beneficial powers, as though it were yoga in a bong.

Perhaps it's marijuana's enduring association with the 1960s peace movement, rock'n'roll and hippie culture that has helped to make it the most popular illicit drug in Australia. Just one more thing to thank the baby boomers for.

Consider this: while only 1.4 per cent of Australians have tried heroin, 33.6 per cent (yes, one-third) of our population admits to having used cannabis.

Studies show that dozens of the damaging properties found in a packet of conventional smokes are also available to us through smoking cannabis, so it seems reasonable to conclude that pot smoking causes cancer, too. That's a good enough basis alone to shun the joint or bong permanently.

But it is the psychoactive effect cannabis has on our minds, particularly on the fragile, inchoate sensibilities of young people, that presents the most pressing concern. There has been speculation for many years that cannabis use (whether it's smoked or eaten) may lead to or trigger the development of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia.

I've always assumed this connection to be credible. Working for community agencies, I have seen again and again cannabis users develop paranoia, antisocial behaviour and psychosis. In many instances, the symptoms and behaviour cease when the cannabis use stops.

I also think it is revealing that among my circle of friends, of the five who were heavy cannabis users in the 1990s, four developed psychotic illnesses. Years later they are all still regularly hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.

I won't argue that cannabis causes schizophrenia or any other mental disorder, but it seems fairly apparent that cannabis can let the psychotic genie, as it were, out of the bottle.

A study led by Dr Matthew Large from the University of New South Wales school of psychiatry - published in the Archives of General Psychiatry this month - found that the development of a psychotic illness can be hastened by up to three years in younger people who smoke cannabis. The data was collected over 30 years and involved 20,000 patients.

Pro-cannabis advocates may argue that since the drug didn't actually "cause" the illness, it's not such a big deal. But the earlier you develop a psychotic illness, the bigger a deal it is. Adolescence is a vulnerable time for the human mind. Experiencing psychosis at an age when brains are developing can irreversibly dislocate educational opportunities, relationships and employment.

Dr Large has emphasized a key finding: stopping cannabis smoking could delay and even prevent psychosis. That's vital information.

But let's not advocate harsher drug prohibition policies. Right now, we must develop strategies to educate young people about the dangers of cannabis use. The drug's sheer ubiquity and its enduring association with the culture of cool makes current public education campaigns look drab and often laughable.

At a friend's party last month, I fell into conversation with Peter, a 30-year-old man who vociferously complained about Victoria Police's random saliva testing of drivers. It was futile to catch cannabis users, Peter said. "Cannabis doesn't affect your driving," he explained emphatically. I spent 30 minutes listening to Peter and two women discussing the benefits of daily pot smoking and deriding the police as "fascists" for spoiling the good times. These were tertiary educated, employed, middle-class adults.

While it is true that cannabis does have some therapeutic medical applications, such as fighting the nausea produced by chemotherapy, it would be dumb to argue that you can drive safely when stoned. The research establishes that driving on cannabis is as risky as driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.05 or more. To those who think cannabis and cars mix: would you want your kids driven home from school by someone who has just had a bong?

We need to take cannabis use far more seriously, especially in the knowledge that children are attracted to the drug. In a 2004 schools survey, 18 per cent of Australian secondary students aged 12 to 17 reported using cannabis. How do we engage with this constituency?

It's going to be a challenge. Sitting in a bus near a group of six school kids one morning last week, I listened to them swapping stories about weekend cannabis and alcohol binges. One girl, about 16, seemed reluctant to join the discussion but finally agreed she would have "a puff" that weekend. These were well-groomed, middle-class kids. Their parents probably have no idea.

While this encounter sheds some light on the dynamics of teenage behavior, it casts a more dazzling beam on the efficacy of our public drug education campaigns. They're barely working.