From 1936’s utterly preposterous film Reefer Madness, to Nancy Reagan’s simplistic 1980s catchcry of ‘Just Say No’, drug education has historically been little more than anti-drug propaganda. But that was then and this is now. Contemporary drug education comes from a completely different angle. It is not an attempt to scaremonger or shame people… it is an attempt to provide factual advice and help those most vulnerable to harm.
When it comes to cannabis, those most vulnerable include people under the age of 25, whose brains are still developing. While there are other considerations such as genetics and preexisting conditions, research has proven that young people who use cannabis are more at risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and psychosis, and are more likely to experience self-harm and suicide. So as cannabis becomes more widespread and accepted internationally, it is imperative that we have an honest conversation about its implications.
While some people who use cannabis experience enjoyment and have a largely positive relationship with the drug, that doesn’t mean there aren’t negative effects too. If anything, the worldwide push towards cannabis legitimacy makes it more important than ever to discuss the risks involved. If you are a young person who has either tried cannabis or plans to, the best approach is to make yourself as well-informed as possible. Understand the risks so that you can avoid them.
THE TRICKY SOCIAL ISSUE
Everyone’s situation is different. Some people have really difficult lives or had traumatic childhoods, so the pain they feel is immense. Some people use drugs to help cope with how they’re feeling or the hard times they’re experiencing. On the other hand, some people might feel worse, or get into tricky situations they otherwise wouldn’t, because of their drug use. Both of these scenarios are complex and challenging, however, our approach to these issues as a society is kinder and more understanding than ever before.
Young people are a vulnerable demographic that are particularly susceptible to harms from drug use. Those who are predisposed to experiencing mental health issues, or have a family history of serious mental health conditions, are at increased risk of cannabis-induced psychosis, and using the drug can even trigger the onset of conditions like bipolar and schizophrenia.
In this group of young people, experimenting with cannabis does carry the very real risk of having life-changing consequences. Independent of hereditary factors, the earlier and more frequently a person uses cannabis the greater their risk of harm. And while some of this harm can be immediate (such as anxiety and paranoia) it can also occur later in life, in the form of impaired lung function, heart disease and cancer.
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The actions you take when you’re young (or the habits you form, in more extreme cases) can have ramifications well into adulthood. Research shows that regularly using cannabis when you’re under 25 can impact memory, learning, attention and problem-solving – and that people who start using cannabis at an early age are more likely to drop out of school. This can cause profound disadvantage in later life.
THE BEST WAY FORWARD
These are not the stupid ages. A young person curious about trying cannabis isn’t some sort of lost soul on the precipice of delinquency. That stereotype is long gone. These days, society is more sensible. The advice to young people from experts in drug research is to delay trying or using cannabis for as long as possible, to protect their developing brain. For people already using cannabis, the advice is to consume as little of it, and as infrequently, as possible. This will help reduce the risk of longer-term effects, as well as reducing the risk of dependence.
There is an abundance of information available on cannabis and its effects on the developing brain. Some reliable online sources from Australia include Drug Aware, Australian Drug Foundation, and Health Direct. See what the science has to say and decide for yourself from there.
If you are using cannabis or other drugs and you’d like to stop or cut down, consider talking to a GP, counsellor or trusted friend. There are people out there willing to help at any time – day or night. If you or someone you know would like support to reduce or stop using cannabis, you can call a qualified and confidential alcohol and other drug counsellor at the Alcohol and Drug Support Line.