Helping Youth Make Sense of Cannabis

We have all heard a variety of claims about cannabis. Some are scary, like, “cannabis causes psychosis” or “cannabis leads to brain damage and dropping out of school.” Others tell a different story, “cannabis is a miraculous herb that alleviates the symptoms of everything from hiccups to Multiple Sclerosis.”

Making sense of these competing claims can be confusing . While there is at least some truth in almost all of them, accurate and balanced information about cannabis is more complex than simple statements. It is particularly important for young people to realize that there are no simple answers. People are complex beings. Cannabis use can affect  us all differently, but it has potential to impact our minds, bodies, relationships and future prospects.

So where do we begin? We need to acknowledge that all drugs can be both good and bad. Even medications recommended by a doctor can cause harm. Since all drug use carries some risk, it is important to learn how to weigh the potential benefits against the potential risk. Fortunately, human beings have been doing this for a long time. And the wisdom of the ages might be summed up as, “not too much, not too often, and only in safe contexts.” Using more of a drug (or a higher strength preparation) or using daily as opposed to once in a while is more dangerous. But risk is also linked to a wide range of contextual factors. Age – the younger a person is when they start using cannabis regularly, the more likely they are to experience harms in the short term or later in life. But other factors, like where and with whom one uses, also impact risk. Smoking cannabis on school property or driving under the influence are examples of particularly high-risk contexts for quite different reasons.

The reasons why we might use cannabis are also important, and they influence the balance of risk and benefit. If our use is motivated only by curiosity, for example, our use will likely be only occasional or experimental. On the other hand, if our use is about fitting in with a particular group or a way to cope with anxiety or some other mental health problem, we are more likely to develop a more regular and riskier pattern of use. Yet again, if we are consciously choosing to use cannabis to address troubling symptoms related to various health challenges, we may find it relatively easy to manage our use in a way that minimizes risk.

While it may be helpful to know the various potential risks and benefits associated with cannabis use, the more important issue is to become consciously aware of our own pattern of use and our reasons for using or not using. As human beings, we tend to “outsource” control of our behaviour to the environment. For example, when we are with our friends, we may talk a certain way. But when we are talking with our parents, our teachers, our boss – without thinking about it – we slip into a different way of talking. Drug use is more dangerous when we allow it to become a pattern that we don’t think about.

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Author: Dan Reist, Assistant Director (Knowledge Exchange) at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC

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