The facts about cannabis and the effects it has on our teenagers in its many forms

Do you think that the use of cannabis is harmless? Well read on and find out the facts and then decide. There is a lot of talk about drugs in society today.  Some of it is true, some not. Much of what is being “promoted” actually comes from those selling them. Reformed drug dealers have confessed that they would have said anything to get others to buy drugs. People have unlimited access to all kinds of illegal drugs in every part of Ireland today. So what are the consequences for those who use?

Everyone knows about cannabis, it has been around for centuries, so what’s all the fuss about now? Cannabis describes any of the different drugs that come from Indian hemp, including marijuana, and a whole range of other street names as well as hashish. One of the reasons cannabis is big news today is that the nature of the drug has changed a lot over the years. Cannabis has become one of the most trafficked illegal drugs in the world. It no longer just grows naturally, but is grown under conditions that makes it much more potent.

The potency relates to the THC content –  the chemical in cannabis that gets you “high”. Some types of cannabis are grown for its potency and are extremely high in THC. This means that there is a higher risk of negative and damaging effects from using it. The more potent forms are grown to be more addictive. The potency varies between the different types of cannabis ie. resin, marijuana, or hashish, which is made from the resin of Indian hemp and is six times stronger than marijuana. Unlike alcohol, cannabis does not come with a label telling you how strong it is. You cannot tell from just looking at it. Regardless of the name, this drug causes hallucinations and has a substance which distorts how the mind perceives the world you live in. So one never knows what strength this drug is or the resulting harm caused by its use.

What are the risks?

Cannabis or marijuana is one of the drugs young people use the most. The effect is usually felt within minutes. The immediate sensations include increased heart rate, lessened co-ordination and balance, and a dreamy unreal state of mind. It also creates a severe impact on the lungs. The mental consequences for users are equally severe with users having amongst  other dangers, poorer memories and decreased mental aptitude.  Cannabis can trigger underlying mental health problems. It has hallucinogenic properties which can make you feel paranoid, anxious and in some people, lead to a psychotic episode.

Recent studies, including from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, showed the connection between cannabis use in adolescence and schizophrenia. These studies state that it doubles your risk of developing schizophrenia as an adult. Previous research has shown that young adolescents who started using cannabis/marijuana before the age of sixteen are at greater risk of permanent brain damage and have a significantly higher incidence of psychiatric disorders. This is the critical period in life during which drug use can be damaging and cause permanent health risks.

TEENAGE YEARS are the worst time in a person’s life to smoke cannabis, a prominent Irish child and adolescent psychiatrist has said.

Dr Bobby Smyth was reacting to a study concerning the drug’s effect on the adolescent brain. He works for the HSE at the Youth Drug and Alcohol Service in Tallaght and referred to the growing evidence that cannabis has a long-term negative impact on the developing brain.

A study published yesterday in American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found cannabis can lower the IQ of young teenagers and may cause permanent mental impairment. The most persistent users suffered an average eight-point decline in IQ between adolescence and adulthood.

Users experienced significantly more attention and memory problems than non-users, the study found. This was the case even after taking account of different educational backgrounds and use of alcohol and other drugs.

The tests showed wide-ranging mental decline among men and women who began taking cannabis at a young age and continued using the drug regularly for more than 20 years.

A disturbing new study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, USA, highlights and confirms the dangers of adolescents smoking cannabis.

Results of this research have also shown that young people who regularly smoke cannabis or weed have a greater risk of schizophrenia and can suffer long lasting brain damage. Researchers say the drug is particularly dangerous for a group of people who may have underlying tendencies to a genetic mental disorder or have mental health issues. It also highlights the dangers of teenagers smoking cannabis during their formative years. The study  found that even short- term exposure to cannabis impair brain activity with the damage continuing into adulthood.

A separate study  carried out only last month by the Imperial College, London, revealed that long-term use of cannabis destroys dopamine, the feel good chemical in the brain that inspires a spirit of get up and go. It suggests that it can lead to individuals becoming withdrawn, lethargic, listless, apathetic or indifferent. Cannabis users who partook in the study said they had all experienced psychotic- like symptoms, such as having strange sensations and having feelings of paranoia and fear. Dr Michael Bloomfield, of the above college, said there is mounting evidence that the idea that cannabis is a harmless drug is untrue.  He has noted short term side effects include a decrease in short-term memorydry mouth, impaired motor skills, red eyes, and feelings of paranoia or anxiety.  Long term side effects include addiction and decreased mental ability in those who started as teenagers. Also noted was the behavioural problems in children whose mothers used cannabis during pregnancy.

Aside from a skewed or twisted change in perception and mood, the most common short-term physical, and impact on the structure of the nervous system, include increased heart rate, increased appetite and consumption of food, lowered blood pressure, impairment of short-term and working memory,  lack of co-ordination, depression, panic attacks , anxiety and concentration. Users also suffer from bronchitis and brain abnormalities.

Some users experienced episodes of acute psychosis, or psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, mania that is marked by delusions, hallucinations, incoherence and distorted perceptions of reality, which usually abates after six hours, but in rare instances, heavy users may find the symptoms continuing for many days. So why are we ignoring these horrendous side effects of cannabis?

A reduced quality of life is associated with heavy cannabis use.  Society appears to have accepted the use of cannabis as a recreational drug, but when the effects of its use show such alarming after effects, is it not time that all parents educated their children and themselves about its immediate and long-term dangers . The younger you are when you start using, the higher your risk of becoming addicted to cannabis. Heavy and long-term users  experience withdrawal symptoms  that include:  Anxiety and restlessness,  insomnia, loss of appetite,  depression and  problems with concentration and attention. Cannabis in all its forms is now readily available, and young people have no problem accessing it. It is long overdue that users be made fully aware of the dangers they are putting themselves in.

It is interesting to note that animals given marijuana by researchers have suffered structural damage to the brain.

Is smoking a joint the same as drinking alcohol?

The facts are that alcohol contain one chemical substance only; ethanol. Cannabis/marijuana and all its associates, contain more than 400 known chemicals, including cancer-causing substances found in tobacco smoke. Unlike cigarette smokers, “pot” smokers tend to inhale deeply and hold the smoke as long as possible to increase the effect of the drug, worsening the damage to the lungs.  Alcohol is eliminated from the body in a few hours but THC stays in the body for weeks, possibly months, depending on the length and intensity of usage. THC damage the immune system, alcohol does not. I am not proposing using alcohol, far from it, but these are the facts about cannabis.

Some users in the research project experienced an episode of acute psychosis, or a psychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia, mania that is marked by delusions, hallucinations, incoherence and distorted perceptions of reality, which usually abates after six hours, but in rare instances, heavy users may find the symptoms continuing for many days.

A reduced quality of life is associated with heavy cannabis use.  Society may have accepted the use of cannabis as a recreational drug, but when the effects of its use show such alarming after effects, it is time that all parents educated themselves and their children about its dangers. Cannabis in all its forms is now readily available, so it behoves society that the time is long past  for users to be made fully aware of the dangers they are putting themselves in.

Cannabis/Marijuana changes the structure of sperm cells, deforming them and even small amounts can cause temporary sterility in men. It can also upset a woman’s menstrual cycle. It is one of the few drugs which causes abnormal cell division which leads to severe hereditary defects. Studies also found that mothers who “use” before birth may result in their baby having mental abnormalities, reduced initiative, and lessened abilities to concentrate and pursue life goals as well as an increased risk of leukaemia in their children.

These are the facts from renowned institutions and researchers for you to study, and allow you to make an informed judgement for you and your children.

Peg Hanafin, MSc. Rehab/Psych/Couns.   18/4/2017

Author of Getting more out of life, Thoughts for your journey and Never Give up.