Pubdate: Mon, 23 Mar 2015
Source: Varsity, The (CN ON Edu)
Copyright: 2015 The Varsity
Author: Malone Mullin


Perspectives on Student Marijuana Use

Ruben's* apartment looks a lot like mine. Unframed posters adorn his 
walls and empty beer cans litter the countertop - it's a typical 
student living space. But one thing's patently different: on Ruben's 
coffee table sits a twenty-inch water bong, stained with resin from 
the countless tokes that Ruben and his friends have taken from it.

Ruben reaches for the bong as I sit down to talk about his marijuana 
use. He's a U of T student on hiatus: his active student status was 
suspended for poor academic performance last summer. And, yes, he 
says, his weed habit did have a lot to do with it.

But Ruben says he's critical of his drug use and is aware that it has 
both a positive and negative effect on his life. "It helps me relax," 
he tells me, in between cracks directed at LeBron James' choice of 
hairline on the television in front of us. "There's still the fun 
factor, the excitement factor. But if I'm ever in pain I don't need 
to take an Advil. I don't need sleeping pills. It helps with anxiety 
because it calms me down."

Yet he acknowledges that these benefits are countered by the negative 
effects of the drug. "[Smoking marijuana] also makes me forget about 
the things I need to do, which can be good or bad... It's all about 
time and place," he says.


Cannabis use is relatively prevalent in Canada, with one in five 
individuals aged 15 to 24 indulging in 2011. It's usually smoked and 
sometimes eaten. The effects of cannabis range from mild euphoria to 
pain relief to, in rare cases, acute psychosis and delusions.

Youth tend to think of cannabis as largely harmless and natural. A 
2013 Canadian Centre On Substance Abuse (CCSA) survey noted that 
young people believed cannabis promoted relaxation, focus, and 
creativity. Some of those interviewed also tended to see any 
long-term negative effects, such as cognitive decline or dependence, 
as a defect of the individual rather than the drug itself, and even 
these concessions were often overshadowed by beliefs in the 
substance's medicinal properties. Some even thought pot could cure cancer.

Not since the days of Reefer Madness, it seems, has cannabis been 
approached with hysteria or contempt. Most young users today seem to 
get blitzed without much concern about the drug's potential dangers. 
The CCSA survey suggests that many students - Ruben included - see 
pot as something that can be used moderately to only minor detriment.

But Dr. Wiplove Lamba, an addictions specialist at St. Michael's 
Hospital, believes this attitude does not reflect the reality of 
cannabis use. "There are problems with the medicalization of 
marijuana," he says. "Students don't think it's harmful. When people 
think something is not dangerous they tend to use it more. Some 
patients might say 'I can't sleep or eat without marijuana', but what 
they might not realize is that these can be signs of dependence," 
Lamba explains.

"Some people think the big bad government is preventing people from 
smoking weed, but there are risks. There needs to be more 
information... There is little data on what cannabis does to the 
body... So there are no low-risk guidelines for use, like we have 
with alcohol," he adds.

A 2013 Health Canada report acknowledged that cannabis impairs 
short-term memory, attention, and concentration, among other 
faculties. This damage, it notes, "[has] the potential to be 
long-lasting", and even quitting for a year or more did not restore 
cognitive function for those who started smoking pot in adolescence. 
Perhaps one of the strongest indicators warning against youth 
cannabis use comes from a study done in New Zealand, which found in 
heavy users - after following over a thousand participants for 25 
years - an average decline of eight IQ points.

Lamba considers the New Zealand study "as good as you can get 
science-wise", and recommends that marijuana not be used by anyone 
before the age of 25, as the frontal lobes have not fully developed 
until then. This not only means that youth lack the requisite gray 
matter to fully weigh the risks of their actions, but also that the 
cognitive effects of cannabis can permanently alter the course of 
neural development.

"For me personally this study would be enough not to use [cannabis], 
but everyone has to make their own decision," he says. "What's 
concerning is that in adolescents, it's not a reversible effect."


So far, these findings only show the impact cannabis might have on a 
student's academic performance. But mental health and social 
functioning are also at risk. Marijuana increases the possibility of 
developing schizophrenia. Additionally, its illegal status can also 
lead to serious social repercussions such as stigmatization - not to 
mention the possible criminal consequences of its possession, 
cultivation, or sale.

Yet the Health Canada report also suggests that weed might help 
anxiety, lending support to anecdotal claims like Ruben's. Hunter*, a 
fourth-year history major, spoke about a similar experience with 
cannabis, claiming that his daily use allows him to cope with 
academic tasks by alleviating his anxiety. "I smoke every single day, 
at least once," he says. "If I have papers and shit to do then I'm 
smoking all day at home. I sit there with my bong on my table and 
just work all day [high]."

I express my surprise that he can work while stoned, as it's not 
known for increasing attention spans. "I'm not sure if it helps me 
focus," he responds, "but it's definitely a coping mechanism." Hunter 
elaborates that it makes him feel guilty to rely on marijuana to help 
him with daily tasks, but he compares it to coffee, characterizing 
cannabis as a substance that can expedite certain activities.

"One thing I've noticed is that it really does vary from strain to 
strain," he adds. "I used to be like, 'oh, if it's green I'll smoke 
it' but now I think, no, that doesn't work... I use a vaporizer and I 
find for medicinal qualities it gets you exactly what you want. You 
set it on the temperature that you want the specific chemical to be 
vaporized at and then you get always that. It's pretty technical. 
Like, if you want to medicate for anxiety you set it at 170 [degrees Celsius]."

Hunter tells me that weed helps him manage his anxiety better than 
pharmaceuticals, allowing him to avoid prescription anxiety 
medications such as Ativan, which he tried after seeing a doctor 
about his symptoms. "I did Ativan twice and it made me feel like I 
didn't have a soul for a day afterwards," he says. "I felt like I was 
just empty. Fuck that stuff."

 From talking to Ruben and Hunter, it seems as though use management 
would become easier if cannabis were a regulated substance. 
"Tailored" highs, a result of knowing the chemical structure of the 
strain prior to consuming it, could act as a preventative measure 
against some of pot's more worrisome effects.

Jane*, a fourth-year humanities student, radio show host, and editor 
of a student journal, also views cannabis as the best way for her to 
manage her mental health. "I smoke it for a number of reasons, one 
being my depression," she says. "I use it as an alternative to 
bottled prescription medication. I have nothing against that kind of 
treatment, it's just not for me. [Smoking weed] pretty effectively 
helps me deal with my depression. I'm a lot happier with weed in my 
life than without it."

I ask Jane if she thinks her gram-a-day habit has impeded her 
academic success. "It's really hard for me to say whether or not I'd 
be more successful had I never smoked pot," she replies. "On one 
hand, I understand the link between memory and marijuana use; 
sometimes my reaction time is a little slower than it should be in 
terms of critical thinking. Being someone who uses it in part to deal 
with depression... I'm gonna have to say no, I probably wouldn't be 
able to get out of bed and do my thing every day without it.

"I'm not saying weed 'saved my life' or anything like that, I'm just 
saying that it helps me calm myself down and not freak out about 
everything," she adds. "It's a good way to unwind. It makes me less intense."

It would seem that at least some students at U of T can smoke pot 
regularly and still function - in some cases, perhaps better than 
they would if they didn't use marijuana. But Lamba points out that 
marijuana's criminal status, and its lack of experimental data, 
currently precludes an informed way to regulate one's use. "If there 
are benefits to [self-medication] they have to be judged on an 
individual basis," he says, "although I think some medical body could 
[plausibly] come up with low-risk usage guidelines."

The medicalization of marijuana has been a hot topic in Canadian 
politics for the last few years. Compassion centres currently exist 
to supply those who were deemed eligible for cannabis treatment by a 
doctor, but the government has not actually approved its use as a 
medicine. Rather, court rulings have enforced reasonable 
accessibility to the substance for patients who require it. Cannabis 
effectively treats a slew of ailments, including chronic pain, nausea 
associated with chemotherapy, and depression associated with chronic diseases.

"I'm not for criminalization of this drug at all," says Lamba. "But 
the problem with medicalization is the delivery system [smoking], and 
we have no way to determine the dose being used. Health Canada made 
[medical marijuana policy] without consulting medical bodies. I think 
decriminalization is inevitable but there are challenges."


In 2011, sociologists at U of T conducted a survey on the 
relationship between recreational cannabis use and academic 
performance. They found no association between recreational users and 
bad grades, indicating that marijuana use was "normalized" at U of T. 
In other words, most of the students surveyed were able to smoke pot 
without the drug hurting their studies.

The researchers suggested that while high school users - who 
typically show a correlation between cannabis and poor performance - 
were often part of a deviant, low-achieving subculture, university 
users were "sufficiently academically focused" to regulate their 
usage and escape the negative effects that befell their younger counterparts.

Jenna Valleriani, a PhD candidate, pro-legalization advocate, and 
board member for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP), 
agrees that recreational use is becoming more prevalent and 
acceptable. "We are seeing a normalization of cannabis use, where 
even if we don't use cannabis we can walk into a party and see our 
friends doing it and we're okay with it," she says.

I tell Valleriani about the students I've spoken with, who consider 
their weed habits a means of self-medication. In contrast to Lamba, 
Valleriani supports the idea. "On a scale of relative harm and risk 
cannabis is relatively low," she explains. "Once it gains legitimacy 
as a medicine it I think it will be accepted as an alternative to 
pharmaceuticals like Ativan to treat conditions like anxiety or depression."

"[Cannabis] doesn't get as much attention [as pharmaceuticals] but 
it's equally important for its medicinal benefits," she adds. "It's 
not as harmful as a lot of pharmaceuticals we reach to, like Ativan."

However, cannabis is still a physically addictive substance, with 
nine per cent of users developing dependency. Dr. Lin Fang, an 
associate professor at U of T's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social 
Work, warns that cannabis' increased potency might mean a greater 
risk for addiction, and that "cannabis use is associated with a range 
of mental illness, such as anxiety, psychosis, and depression." 
Self-regulation of use is difficult, she says, because "we do not 
really know what [a] moderated amount is for each individual."


Cannabis' potential as a substance that can both help and harm makes 
informational resources at U of T essential-but these resources don't 
currently seem to exist. Counseling and Psychological Services 
(CAPS), U of T's notoriously overbooked therapy center, does not 
visibly address pot use aside from a single document on its website, 
and no external sources are available for students seeking 
information on marijuana.

"I do think it would be a good idea if we can have more resources 
designed for students," Fang says, "that summarize the current 
research [evidence] in a user-friendly way so that students can make 
informed decisions."

Lamba, Fang, and Valleriani all see decriminalization as the best 
means of harm reduction. This sentiment echoes a 2014 Centre for 
Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) report, which proposes 
legalization to address the failings of prohibition.

"Legalizing the substance together with tight regulations [such as] 
clear information about the product and its potency, minimum age... 
and education on the effects of cannabis is probably a more sensible 
way to go," says Fang.

Valleriani agrees, and encourages students to support legalization, 
whether they use cannabis themselves or not. "Youth voices are 
integral to policy making, particularly with regards to drug policy," 
she says. "Young people should have a say in how our policies are 
created and have access to information that lets them critically 
think about the policies they're getting."

As with responsible alcohol use, it seems as though students can 
smoke weed without necessarily harming their performance. But even 
for stoners like Ruben, indulgence needs to be carefully watched.

"Is what I'm doing bad? When you smoke a lot, you're not happy with 
yourself," he says. "It's not for everyone. We live in a society 
where it's regulated for reason."

"Weed didn't kick me out of U of T. I did," he says, hitting the bong 
again. "You just have to learn to control it."

*Names changed at students' request.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom