Marijuana: is it really harmless?
Can marijuana really be considered a “social” drug like alcohol- potentially dangerous if imbibed in large quantities, but on the whole, generally harmless?
In recent months, the arguments have been ramping up for the legalization of marijuana for social and personal use in Australia. Many of the arguments include that it is one of the “softer” drugs- not any more harmful than alcohol (some might venture to argue that alcohol is more harmful). But is that really true?
Let’s have a look. Much of the information in this article comes from the RACGP here.
Benefits of marijuana use. Currently cannabis is legal in some states of Australia for medicinal use– namely, epilepsy, muscle spasticity in multiple sclerosis, chronic non cancer pain, chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting in cancer, and palliative care. It should be noted that:
- the scientific evidence used as a basis for these indications is limited
- cannabis is generally used as a last option when other conventional medications have failed to produce an effect
- generally cannabis is used as an adjunct to conventional medications
In terms of personal use, the most common cited reasons for cannabis use include:
- assistance with sleep
- relaxation and assistance with anxiety symptoms
- pain relief
Possible harms from marijuana use. These are much more likely if marijuana dependence develops. Approximately 6-10% of Australians will develop marijuana dependence in their lifetime. Dependence develops when withdrawal symptoms are experienced when the drug is ceased. The negative consequences emerging from dependence include :
- short term memory impairment
- respiratory complications (if smoked)
- mental health problems (especially schizophrenia)
- social problems such as difficulties with gaining employment, managing finances and interpersonal relationships
Not sounding so harmless now, huh?
From a personal perspective, I’ve encountered at least several people whose lives were affected by marijuana use, and helped a number come off it completely. For one individual, marijuana use triggered a psychotic episode, terrifying his family. For another, his partner ended up leaving him. And for a third, he had problems keeping his job. The potential for marijuana dependence has all sorts of negative ramifications.
But how easy is it to become dependent?
I suppose the most troubling statistic is that those who used cannabis before the age of 17 are 18 times more likely to develop dependence by the age of 30 than their peers. That is troubling, considering the vulnerability of adolescents at that age.
I guess the conclusion that needs to be made here is that marijuana should not be so easily dismissed as one of the “safer” recreational drugs (when compared to, say, cocaine), especially in an age where anxiety and insomnia seem to be on the rise. While it might seem like an easy answer to a troubling issue, it remains a Band-aid solution- and one that can quickly escalate into something problematic.
If you are concerned that yourself or maybe a loved one is dependent on cannabis, have a look at the following questions, and if you or they answer “Yes” to 3 or more, there might be a problem (taken from the Cannabis Support website):
1. Are you tolerant to the effects of weed, meaning you need to smoke more weed to feel the same level of ‘high’?
2. Do you get withdrawal symptoms if you stop using? Marijuana withdrawal symptoms are things like feeling depressed, irritable, nausea, cravings to smoke weed, shakiness, chills, sweating or having trouble sleeping?
3. Do you use more weed than you intend to?
4. Have you tried and failed to stop using several times even though you want to quit?
5. Do you spend a lot of your time on weed-related activities – getting it, using it or recovering from it?
6. Have you prioritised using weed over other important activities?
7. Do you use even though you know it causes you problems?
If you would like assistance in reducing your cannabis use or screening for possible health complications from cannabis use, the best person to see is your local GP, who can advise on medications and possible counselling or specialist referrals to assist you. You are, of course, always welcome to see me for that assistance.