Pubdate: Sat, 01 Sep 2012
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2012 The Irish Times
Author: Patrick Freyne


A new study shows a significant drop in IQ for long-term users who 
smoked cannabis from adolescence into adulthood. Here, some young 
adults discuss their experiences with the drug.‘I FIRST STARTED 
smoking cannabis when I was 12," says Stephen, a 26-year-old from 
Ballymun, in north Dublin. "It took me away from the life that I was 
in. I came from a big family and had an awful lot of angry people 
around me and a lot of drink and drugs. I used to pray to God to take 
me out and put me in another family. Cannabis took me away for a few hours.

"Two or three of us would chip in and grab a o10 deal. You could go 
to the field and have a few joints and not listen to your ma and da. 
We'd sit in the fields with the horses, two stolen cars and a lump of 
hash. We'd sit in the cars, smoke the hash and then rally the cars 
around the fields."

Soon Stephen was stealing to fund his cannabis habit and entered a 
cycle of paranoia, depression and anxiety attacks from which he says 
he has only recently emerged. He has completed the cannabis programme 
run by Ballymun Youth Action Group. ("We set it up in response to a 
demand," says a community addiction worker, Karl O'Brien.) He has 
signed up to a Fetac course and is reconnecting with his two young 
sons (whose names are tattooed on his arm). He says he's seeing life 
clearly for the first time in a decade.

Attitudes to cannabis have softened. It is often seen as less harmful 
than even legal drugs such as alcohol. In more recent years, however, 
a succession of studies have noted adverse effects on the mental and 
cognitive health of some long-term users, particularly those who used 
in their teenage years.

A newly published study of cannabis users in New Zealand has shown 
that regular users who smoked from their teenage years suffered an 
irreversible drop in IQ. (Those who smoked only in adulthood suffered 
an IQ drop, too, but this seems to be reversible over time after 
abstaining from the drug.)

Furthermore, the type of cannabis available has become more potent: 
cannabis resin has been supplanted by grass or skunk.

"I did enjoy it [cannabis] a lot at the start," says Stephen. "I 
enjoyed the giggles and the laughing, but after three or four years 
that feeling stopped. I was paranoid. That was made worse because I 
was hiding from everybody, because I owed them money. I felt I 
couldn't go outside the door. I couldn't go to some of my own 
friends' funerals because I owed money. And I felt like I was dead if 
I didn't have [cannabis]. I didn't want to live if I didn't have it. 
I'd rob anything. I know it's not heroin, but I know people spending 
four times as much on weed as heroin. And I know people being 
physically battered over money for weed."

Tony, a young-looking 21-year-old who is still involved with the 
programme, is a bit more sceptical of its danger. "I don't think it's 
that harmful really," he says. "I saw somewhere that more people die 
every year from eating peanuts than smoking cannabis. I suppose it 
could kill you if you ran up a debt and someone shot you over it. 
That could happen."

Nonetheless he wants to cut down on his consumption to focus on 
earning more money for his baby girl. "I'm going to do the Leaving 
Cert," he says. "I need to earn more money.

"Weed does make you real stupid and dopey," he says. "I'd go to 
school stoned and you wouldn't learn anything. When I got older I 
used to sit in the house and smoke it. Put on a funny film, have a 
few joints, get the munchies and have a few packets of crisps. My ma 
doesn't like me smoking it, but she can't really stop me. Maybe it'd 
be different if I was smoking gear."

Dr Bobby Smyth, a Trinity College Dublin academic who works with the 
HSE's youth drug and alcohol service in Tallaght, says just because 
cannabis seems less harmful than other drugs, this does not mean it's 
harmless. Most youth workers contacted for this article say the 
numbers accessing their services with cannabis-specific issues has 
increased (this despite a recent NUI Galway study suggesting fewer 
under-18s are smoking the drug overall).

"It's the biggest single drug that presents to us, and it's become 
more dominant as the biggest substance in the past year or two," says 
Smyth. "There are multiple factors. Drugs are very culturally 
influenced. They go in and out of fashion, and at the moment cannabis 
is quite fashionable. It's very available and the quality is good.

"We're seeing teenagers spending €50 a day on cannabis. That's 
about €1,400 a month. The amount of money people are spending 
on cannabis now is similar to what people would spend on a heroin 
habit. They're getting the drug on ticket, and eventually the dealer 
comes knocking at their parents' door looking for the money. That's 
usually when they're referred to us."

Part of the problem is cannabis has changed. The market is now 
dominated by strains of locally produced grass that have, over the 
years, been modified to contain higher levels of the psychoactive 
chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. "This makes it much more 
powerful and pleasurable," says Smyth. "But it also increases the 
risk of doing damage."

Twenty-year-olds Siobhan and Trevor are sitting in a counselling room 
at Crinan Youth Project, based at the old Magdalen laundry on Sean 
McDermott Street. Both of them feel as if they've been clean "for 
ages" (four months and six weeks respectively). They started smoking 
hash young, Siobhan at 12, Trevor at 16, but couldn't go back to it, 
they said, once they'd experienced stronger weed.

For a long time each of them thought that the paranoia and anxiety 
they felt were rational responses to reality and had nothing to do 
with the drug. Trevor maintains that each bag of weed "should come 
with a warning like on a packet of cigarettes, because it f*s up your 
head. Each bag should have a picture of a guy looking like this . . 
." He does an exaggerated impression of an anguished man holding his 
head in his hands.

"At the start you'd get a real buzz off it," says Siobhan. "But then 
it's like 10 personalities in a bag. Your mood can change very 
quickly. I'd be walking to the shops terrified, because I'd be 
convinced someone was following me and was about to punch me in the face."

Siobhan is looking for work and Trevor is planning to resit the 
Leaving Cert. "I couldn't have done that when I was smoking," he 
says. "I wouldn't have got out of bed for it."

The interviewees in this article are primarily heavy users for whom 
the drug has become problematic, but this is not the whole story.

Jane, a 21-year-old from Donegal, smokes marijuana three or four 
times a week. She first smoked when she was 14, but she does not feel 
that the drug adversely affects her.

"It's become an acceptable drug," she says. "I don't think families 
even see it as a drug any more, not like something like cocaine.

"I know a few people who need to smoke a joint in order to sleep and 
others whose whole lives revolve around it, but I think most can take 
it or leave it. It doesn't make me paranoid. I go without it for long 
periods of time, and I can't see myself smoking it forever."

For a known minority, however, cannabis curbs motivation, impairs 
cognition and damages mental health. Drug programmes such as those 
run by Crinan Youth Project and Ballymun Youth Action group do 
essential work despite cutbacks.

"I did other drugs -- acid, ecstasy, cocaine -- but I could always 
knock them on the head," says Stephen. "The one I could never get rid 
of was cannabis. It was the pot of gold in my day. I couldn't imagine 
life without it. Now that I've stopped it's a bit like waking up from 
a weird dream. I actually get a buzz from watching the telly or 
playing snooker or going to the cinema. I don't need it any more."

Some names have been changed

Does cannabis turn you into a dope?

How has cannabis changed in recent years? "The hash that was around 
when I was a teenager was a very different beast to the grass being 
smoked now," says Dr Bobby Smyth of Trinity College Dublin.

"It's like comparing a shandy to a bottle of tequila. Studies in 
Britain show that those who smoked skunk with the higher levels of 
THC are more likely to suffer psychotic symptoms than those who 
smoked the milder strain."

The New Zealand study reported in the media this week shows an 
eight-point drop in IQ for long-term users who smoked cannabis from 
adolescence into adulthood. This worries Smyth.

"That study involves people who were 38 the last time they were 
interviewed, so it must relate to people who weren't smoking the 
modern cannabis. If the current cohort of teenagers are smoking the 
more potent cannabis, one would expect that the effect would be even 
more potent for them."

The study found adults who quit the drug did not suffer impaired IQ, 
but teenagers suffered a permanent effect. What about those who 
smoked cannabis heavily as teenagers and have perfectly normal lives 
now? "People will vary in terms of the extent to which it affects 
them. Some cannabis smokers will get away with it. They'll smoke 
their brain off as teenagers and there won't be much of an impact. 
But for others there'll be a more profound impact.

"We just don't know who's in danger of developing these cognitive 
problems or psychotic-type problems. It's a roll of the dice. But the 
idea that you could pour any chemical into your brain week after week 
and year after year and that your brain isn't going to be changed by 
that is delusional."
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