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Health, psychology & science stories

 

Cannabis

28 July 2000

 


Published in the Byron Shire Echo


A Good Deal to Think About


The Nimbin Mardi Grass and Cannabis Law Reform Weekend - at the end of this week - is again focusing awareness on the legal status of dope.


This is undoubtedly a good thing. But unfortunately conflict over cannabis law has for 30 years diverted attention from the primary issue - which is surely the effect of cannabis on human well-being.


The first thing to say about smoking dope is that many people find it enjoyable, even beneficial. It can indeed create euphoria, exhilaration, self-confidence and loss of inhibitions.
 
But - beyond the $250 an ounce you’ll pay in Adelaide, or the $400 in Sydney - cannabis can also have its price.
"Cannabis psychosis", for instance, is characterised by hallucinations, delusions, memory loss and confusion - but it generally wears off in a few days. More alarming is the lasting psychosis, such as schizophrenia, which will affect a small minority of users.


A large Swedish study (50,465 subjects) found that using cannabis by the age of 18 multiplied the chance of developing schizophrenia by 2.4 times. This figure increased with frequency of use - and the strength of the dope. For example, those who had used dope more than 50 times had a six times greater chance of becoming schizophrenic.


It’s thought that cannabis may do this by disturbing the brain’s release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Teenagers who smoke dope are at higher risk of mental illness than adults - and boys more so than than girls. Smoking strong dope (like skunk), or smoking frequently, increases the risk further again.


Young people who believe dope to be entirely harmless should talk to locals who descended into dope-induced paranoia, or psychosis, during the 1970s. (Some of them permanently.)


Several Byron Shire teenage boys have developed lasting cannabis-triggered psychoses in recent years. It’s extremely important for parents to make children aware of the risks to tender young brains of dope consumption which is too frequent or too high.


Anyone with a family history of mental illness would do well to avoid dope altogether.


A final "multiplying" factor is "other substances": mental problems are more frequent in the so-called "poly drug users".


To put things in perspective: most schizophrenics have never smoked dope. Dope is only one of many risk factors in psychosis. And for the unlucky ones, vitamin B3 - and the Environmental Medicine approach in general - can be effective against psychoses.


It’s worth emphasising that the health effects of cannabis are very much related to dose, frequency, family history of mental illness, other drugs or alcohol used, pregnancy status, and so on.


For example, heavy or  long-term consumption can cause subtle cognitive impairment. And dope-smoking can harm foetal brains - so pregnant women should definitely give it a miss.


Dope-smokers will experience a lot more delusions, hallucinations, "paranoid ideation" and "psychological distress" than the general population. Interestingly, the same applies to ex-users who have given up for three months to six years
Against all this, cannabis can be very useful for the relief of pain or stress - and its medical applications will undoubtedly grow, in time. Probably only ten percent of users have a dependency problem - way under the figure for tobacco smokers.
Stoned drivers, whilst being more error-prone, are also more cautious. (There’s a much stronger link between sedatives and road crashes.)


A Northern Rivers Health Service study found that regular dope-smokers had similar physical health to the general population, with the exception of more wheezy chests. Twenty-one percent of users felt paranoia, anxiety or depression - but most reported nothing untoward.


Lastly, there still may be someone who has not heard the two oldest maxims in the reformist’s repertoire:


1. Dope generates fewer health problems than alcohol and tobacco.


2. There’s never been a single overdose death.


Most hard drug users started on cannabis, it is true. However those who use this as an argument for cannabis prohibition must also abolish alcohol. (A little more seriously, there are no known causal links in either case.)


Perhaps the most comprehensive, and up-to-date, document on cannabis and mental health is the proceedings of the Inaugural International Cannabis and Psychosis Conference,  held in Melbourne in February, 1999.


Findings included:


• THC in the bloodstream can impair performance of "working memory", "verbal fluency" and "selective attention".


• Lifetime cannabis abuse or dependence increases paranoia, depression, and anxiety - and reduces "self-determination" and "co-operativeness".


• "Cannabis is second to alcohol as the most commonly reported substance abused amongst the severely mentally ill".


• Deterioration in mental health is significantly associated with increasing years of cannabis use.


This landmark conference’s most wide-ranging paper, by the US criminologists Reuter and MacCoun, acknowledges the risks of accident, psychosis, impaired adolescent development, and possibly cancer. However it concludes:


"Our judgment is that at present the primary harms of marijuana use...come from criminalisation: expensive and intrusive enforcement; inequity; shock to the conscience from disproportionate sentence and; a substantial...black market."


 


 


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