Cannabis and mental health
Its difficult to come across reliable statistics regarding the number of people in Ireland who smoke cannabis. Apparently half of all 16 to 29 year olds have tried it at least once.
In spite of government warnings about health risks, many people see it as a harmless substance that helps you to relax and chill a drug that, unlike alcohol and cigarettes, might even be good for your physical and mental health. Even if you subscribe to this mode of thought, it is important to note that there is a body of research which has suggested that it can be a major cause of psychotic illnesses in those who are genetically vulnerable.
What is cannabis?
Cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are members of the nettle family that have grown wild throughout the world for centuries. Both plants have been used for a variety of purposes including hemp to make rope and textiles, as a medical herb and as the popular recreational drug.
The plant is used as:
- The resin - a brown/black lump, known as bhang, ganja, hashish, resin etc;
- The dried leaves - known as grass, marijuana, spliff, weed etc.
Skunk is one of the stronger types of cannabis which is grown especially for its higher concentration of psychoactive ingredients. It is named after the pungent smell it gives off during growing. It can be grown either under grow lights or in a greenhouse, often using hydroponic (growing in nutrient rich liquids rather than soil) techniques. There are hundreds of other varieties of cannabis.
Street cannabis can come in a wide variety of strengths, and because its not regulated it is not possible to judge exactly what is being used in any one particular session.
How is it used?
Most commonly, the resin or the dried leaves are mixed with tobacco and smoked as a spliff or joint. The smoke is inhaled strongly and held in the lungs for a number of seconds. It can also be smoked in a pipe, a water pipe, or collected in a container before inhaling it. It can be brewed as tea or cooked in cakes, and according to one high profile pensioner in the UK, can really lend something to a stew!
More than half of its psychologically active chemical ingredient are absorbed into the blood when smoked. These compounds tend to build up in fatty tissues throughout the body, so it takes a long time to be excreted in the urine. This is why cannabis can be detected in urine up to 56 days after it has last been used.
What is its legal status of cannabis?
Its illegal. If you get caught, the arresting Garda will bring you to court and prosecute you. Its difficult to predict what the outcome of this will be as it generally depends on the disposition of the judge. You could get off with a fine, or find yourself on a lengthy probation bond with a lot of sticky conditions such as attendance at an addiction counsellor and frequent Urinalysis (Piss Test).
What tends to catch a lot of people out is that it doesnt matter what you paid for it, if a Garda places a high value on it, or reckons theres enough there to nail you for sale and supply, youre up shit creek and such.
How does it work and what is the chemical make-up of cannabis?
There are about 60 compounds and 400 chemicals in an average cannabis plant. Were not going to name them all, but the four main compounds are called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9-THC), cannabidiol, delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabinol.
Apart from cannabidiol (CBD), these compounds are psychoactive, the strongest one being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. The stronger varieties of the plant contain little cannabidiol (CBD) because this has no psychoactive effect, whilst the delta-9-THC content is a lot higher.
Smoking cannabis allows its compounds to rapidly enter the bloodstream where they are transported directly to the brain and other parts of the body. The feeling of being stoned is caused mainly by the delta-9-THC binding to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. A receptor is a site on brain cell where certain substances can stick or bind for a while. If this happens, it has an effect on the cell and the nerve impulses it produces.
Most of these receptors are found in the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, sensory and time perception. Cannabis compounds can also affect the eyes, the ears, the skin and the stomach.
What are its effects?
- A high - a sense of relaxation, happiness, sleepiness, colours appear more intense, music sounds better.
- Around 1 in 10 cannabis users have unpleasant experiences, including confusion, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia. The same person may have either pleasant or unpleasant effects depending on their mood and circumstances. These feelings are usually only temporary. However, as the drug can stay in the system for some weeks, the effect can be more long-lasting than users realise. Long-term use can have a depressant effect, reducing motivation, which may be why you haven't seen your filthy hippy house mate in a while, maybe you should check and see if they still possess the will to draw breath!
Education and learning
Cannabis also interferes with a person's capacity to concentrate, organise information and use information. This effect seems to last several weeks after use, which can cause particular problems for students.
However, a large study in New Zealand followed up 1265 children for 25 years. It found that while cannabis use in adolescence was linked to poor school performance, there was no direct connection between the two. It looked as though it was simply because cannabis use encouraged a way of life that didn't help with schoolwork.
It seems to have a similar effect on people at work. There is no evidence that cannabis causes specific health hazards. But users are more likely to leave work without permission, spend work time on personal matters or simply daydream. Cannabis users themselves report that drug use has interfered with their work and social life.
A review of the research on the effect of cannabis on pilots revealed that those who had used cannabis made far more mistakes, both major and minor, than when they had not smoked cannabis. No pilots were injured in the undertaking of this research. The most measurable effects were in the first four hours, although these persisted for at least 24 hours, even when the pilot had no sense at all of being stoned. The review concluded: Most of us, with this evidence, would not want to fly with a pilot who had smoked cannabis within the last day or so, - no shit!
What about driving?
A recent study in France looked at over 10,000 drivers who were involved in fatal car crashes. Even when the influence of alcohol was taken into account, cannabis users were more than twice as likely to be the cause of a fatal crash than to be one of the victims. Its worth pointing out that we don't have numbers here, so feel free to go on the whole statistics are bullshit rant, but if you can acknowledge that its hard to drive well when drunk, you might as well face up to the fact that its pretty hard to drive stoned as well.
Mental health problems
This is a contentious issue. There is growing evidence that people with serious mental illness, including depression and psychosis, are more likely to use cannabis or have used it for long periods of time in the past. Regular use of the drug has appeared to double the risk of developing a psychotic episode or long-term schizophrenia. However, does cannabis cause depression and schizophrenia or do people with these disorders use it as a medication?
Over the past few years, research has strongly suggested that there is a clear link between early cannabis use and later mental health problems in those with a genetic vulnerability - and that there is a particular issue with the use of cannabis by adolescents. Adolescents are children, mixing chemicals in with developing brains and organs could be construed as being simply criminal, and monumentally stupid.
A study following 1,600 Australian school-children, aged 14 to 15 for seven years, found that adolescents who used cannabis daily were five times more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later life.
Three major studies followed large numbers of people over several years, and showed that those people who use cannabis have a higher than average risk of developing schizophrenia. If you start smoking it before the age of 15, you are 4 times more likely to develop a psychotic disorder by the time you are 26. They found no evidence of self-medication. It seemed that, the more cannabis someone used, the more likely they were to develop symptoms.
Why should teenagers be particularly vulnerable to the use of cannabis? -brain development. The brain is still developing in the teenage years up to the age of around 20. A massive process of neural pruning is going on. This is rather like streamlining a tangled jumble of circuits so they can work more effectively. Any experience, or substance, that affects this process has the potential to produce long-term psychological effects.
Recent research in Europe, and in the UK, has suggested that people who have a family background of mental illness so probably have a genetic vulnerability anyway - are more likely to develop schizophrenia if they use cannabis as well.
Is there such a thing as cannabis psychosis?
Recent research in Denmark suggests that yes, there is. It is a short-lived psychotic disorder that seems to be brought on by cannabis use but which subsides fairly quickly once the individual has stopped using it. It's quite unusual though - in the whole of Denmark they found only around 100 new cases per year.
However, they also found that three quarters had a different psychotic disorder diagnosed within the next year and nearly half still had a psychotic disorder three years later. The continuing trend of alien abduction may be more worrying to you, given the numbers...
Is cannabis addictive?
It has some of the features of addictive drugs such as having to take more and more to get the same effect, withdrawal symptoms which have been shown in heavy users and include: craving, decreased appetite, sleep difficulty, weight loss, aggression anger, irritability, restlessness, and strange dreams. These symptoms of withdrawal produce about the same amount of discomfort as withdrawing from tobacco, which is apparently pretty hard.
What about skunk and other stronger varieties?
Traditional herbal cannabis contains between 1 and 15 per cent of the main psycho-active ingredient, THC. Some of the newer strains, including skunk, contain up to 20 per cent, so can be 3 times as strong as traditional cannabis, or maybe just 5% stronger which doesn't really justify the price differential. Stronger strains work more quickly, and can produce hallucinations with profound relaxation and elation along with nervousness, anxiety attacks, projectile vomiting and a strong desire to eat. The munchies are a natural physiological reaction to your blood sugar levels plummeting. This can have significant implications for diabetics.
Problems with cannabis use
Many perhaps most people who use cannabis do enjoy it. But it can become a problem for some people. A US organisation, marijuana-anonymous.org, defines the problems of cannabis as follows:
...if cannabis controls our lives and our thinking, and if our desires centre around marijuana - scoring it, dealing it, and finding ways to stay high so that we lose interest in all else.
The website carries the following questionnaire which could equally well apply to alcohol use.
If you answer Yes to any of the questions, you may have a problem. As we said in our alcohol section, feel free to laugh at this, but if you're in your room, drooling over porn on your lap top, if you've hit on this site by accident and you've no friends aside from your dealer, or if you think smoking cannabis is going to cost you your degree, why not give it a look? (That wasn't one of the questions)
- Has smoking pot stopped being fun?
- Do you ever get high alone?
- Is it hard for you to imagine a life without marijuana?
- Do you find that your friends are determined by your marijuana use?
- Do you smoke marijuana to avoid dealing with your problems?
- Do you smoke pot to cope with your feelings?
- Does your marijuana use let you live in a privately defined world?
- Have you ever failed to keep promises you made about cutting down or controlling your dope smoking?
- Has marijuana caused problems with memory, concentration, or motivation?
- When your stash is nearly empty, do you feel anxious or worried about how to get more?
- Do you plan your life around your marijuana use?
- Have friends or relatives ever complained that your pot smoking is damaging your relationship with them?
If you decide to give up cannabis, it may be no more difficult than giving up cigarettes. On the other hand it could be incredibly difficult, seek out support through your student counselling services, or contact us here at headRKT@grabaGAFF.com, and we'll help you to locate services in your area.