Teens and marijuana: 'I'd go to school stoned and not learn anything'
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 £10 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.”