Is your high getting you low?
Healthy lifestyles reporter Jenelle talks to Associate Professor Dan Lubman about the physical and mental effects of weed.
Cannabis, pot, marijuana, grass, weed, hashish... Whatever you want to call it, it's all the same thing. Smoked or eaten, it is the most widely used illicit drug in Australia. According to the Cannabis Use and Mental Health Community Awareness Campaign 2008-2009, one in three Australians aged 14 years and older reported having used cannabis at some time in their life.
How much or how often?
Associate Professor Dan Lubman from Orygen Youth Health Research Centre at the University of Melbourne, who has worked on the campaign, says it's all about spreading awareness of the risks of using cannabis and encouraging people to seek help.
"The issue is not how much cannabis is safe, but rather the context that you are using. For example, if you drive a car with cannabis in your system, you are increasing the risk of injury and having a crash because cannabis affects cognitive abilities and slows down your reaction time," Lubman says.
However, for regular cannabis users (those who are smoking a few times a week) the harm can be a lot worse. According to Lubman you can certainly become addicted to cannabis.
"Cannabis is a drug of abuse. It acts on part of the brain that is involved in rewards physically - when you increase doses to achieve the desired effect, are anxious, irritable and can't sleep - and psychologically - cannabis is a priority in your life, you are aware that cannabis use is an issue but can't stop and you have cravings to use."
Other long-term effects may include cancer of the lungs, mouth and throat, poor concentration and memory, asthma and bronchitis, learning difficulties and occasionally psychosis.
Cannabis linked to anxiety and depression
Lubman says many young cannabis users he sees in the clinical part of his job have been having problems for years and don't make the connection between using cannabis and feeling anxious and depressed.
"Cannabis is insidious because initially people may use it to cope with life's anxieties, but for people who smoke regularly it exacerbates the problem. Smoking makes them feel better, but it actually makes them worse off because they feel irritable and can't sleep when the drug isn't in their system," he says.
Lubman says there is strong evidence that cannabis precipitates anxiety and depression. For young people cannabis quadruples the risk of depression.
What the critics need to know
When Lubman speaks on talkback radio about the consequences of cannabis he knows someone will ring and declare "I've been smoking pot for 30 years and I'm fine." Slightly bewildered by the need of people to attack cannabis research and preventative strategies based on their own experiences, Lubman explains to listeners that cannabis today is a different drug to what people smoked 20-30 years ago.
"In the past 30 years the concentration of active components (THC) in cannabis has increased. The plant is mass-produced rather than grown in the backyard and suppliers are now using the flowers from the plant, which have a higher density of THC than the leaves."
"Also 10-15 years ago cannabis contained a cannabidiol component, which reduced anxiety and is antipsychotic. Cannabidiol doesn't exist in cannabis anymore, meaning the risks of cannabis making you feel anxious and irritable are increased," Lubman says.
"We also have to be mindful that the age people first use cannabis has decreased and we know that the earlier the onset the greater the risks of long term and short term problems."
Where to get help
If you're feeling stressed, anxious, paranoid, are tripping out, or don't feel quite right, it might have something to do with using cannabis.
Assoc. Prof. Lubman encourages people to ask:
- When would you consider that you have a problem?
- Are you failing to achieve the goals you set yourself?
- Are you feeling more irritable, or down than you previously were?
- Are you spending more and more time smoking?
- Is smoking interfering with your activities?
If you are using cannabis and experience anxiety, stress and paranoia, www.highsnlows.com.au (new window) has heaps more information.
If you are concerned about someone's cannabis use it may be helpful to speak with DirectLine, a free anonymous and confidential counselling and information service, on 1800 888 236 or the National Cannabis Information and Prevention Centre's (NCPIC) Cannabis Information Helpline: 1800 30 40 50.
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