OPINION: by Bob DenahyNews Weekly
Pot goes in the too-hard basket
, April 9, 2005
A recent ABC television documentary, entitled "Messing with Heads" (Four Corners, March 7, 2005), reported on the incidence of cannabis usage amongst Australia's youth. Statistics on the age of users, frequency of use, and effects on the minds and lives of users, were horrific. That story, however, died an early death.
The ABC's Janine Cohen interviewed, amongst others, Sydney psychiatrist Dr Andrew Campbell and uncovered information sufficient to rock the nation.
Instead it was greeted with silence. Princess Mary's visit and the Ross Lightfoot saga were obviously deemed much more important.
"Thirty years ago," said Dr Campbell, "when I started in psychiatry, schizophrenia was a major issue ... The major drug around was alcohol. A few people were getting into trouble with cannabis and we didn't have speed and cocaine.
"What I'm seeing now is a vastly greater number of young people smoking cannabis and in the clinical work - both in the acute services and in long-term community management - nearly 70 per cent of the problems are related to cannabis abuse.
"If you ask what was happening when you first got into trouble, people said they were smoking cannabis on a daily basis. They started when they were 15 or 16 and smoked for four or five years and problems started. About half of them will then say they stopped. Less than half the people I see still use cannabis and they're really having trouble surviving.
"They're typically in their mid-30s and they've had a 10-year history of bouncing in and out of psychiatric hospitals and living alone. They've got no job and few friends. They're very disabled by the cannabis use and the psychotic experience."
Cohen then asked Dr Campbell why cannabis was regarded in the '70s as a harmless drug.
"Cannabis," he said, "has always had the effect of making people feel good and relaxed, and people like to think that something that felt that good wouldn't cause any problems, but it's emerging that it's highly addictive. One of the big changes we're seeing from the '70s until now is that it was a drug that you took at university at 18, 19 or 20 plus and it was a drug you used on weekends, not all the time; and the drug was not nearly as potent as it is now ... Now the youngest I've seen was 10, but quite commonly 12 or 13 and peaking about 15, 16 where 15 to 20 per cent of young people are using it regularly, if not daily."
Cohen asked what damage is done to the teenage brain by smoking cannabis.
Campbell said: "The teenager is really shifting from child brain into adult brain and there's a very big difference with the way our brain is wired up ... Having a daily dose of a powerful drug that affects chemicals that orient our brain, changes the way the brain develops, and so we see brain change ... Cannabis is causing a major disruption for people who use it regularly. I can't see how anyone can go to school and study using cannabis daily.
"You can't maintain friendships, you don't get jobs, you drop out ... In 10 years' time we're going to see the legacy of a whole lot of disabled young people entering adult life with psychotic disorders and/or long-term motivational and organisational problems."
Cohen finally asked Campbell, "In a nutshell, what's your message to young people?"
Campbell replied: "Don't use cannabis. Certainly if you're young - under 21 - I'm not recommending it for over 21s, but it's much more of an insidious poison for the under 21s. It creeps up on people. It changes the way they're functioning. They don't even know it's happening until it's too late."
Cohen also interviewed Professor Wayne Hall, director of Policy and Ethics at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, Queensland University.
Professor Hall pointed out that, in his generation during the '70s, smoking cannabis "was something that people encountered when they were at university and it wasn't readily available.
"Back then it would've been about 20 per cent of young adults who'd had any experience with cannabis in the 20 to 29-year age group.
"Now it's 60 per cent and people have got access to more potent forms of the drug and they're starting earlier and using it more heavily than would've been the case 30 years ago.
"[In the '70s] it was primarily in the form of a joint and people would often share joints, whereas now we see people smoking water bongs, meaning they're getting a much larger dose of the drug, and often doing it - in very heavy users - 10 to 20 times a day; as against a person sharing a joint with several other people a couple of times over a weekend."
Professor Hall also pointed out that Australia has in fact decriminalised cannabis in a default way and added that "when you've got 60 per cent of young people using the drug, if you were to enforce the law rigorously you'd end up with most people before the criminal justice system."
One is left wondering why such facts about our youth are revealed but then ignored. One can only conjecture.
Either we don't want to do anything about them; or we do, but grappling with them is beyond us. That attitude could be interpreted as a recipe for despair.