This blog has a deliberately provocative title, because I think this is something we really need to talk about. It is a question that has been in my mind after my recent trip to the ‘Education for Life’ conference in Mallorca. Psychiatrist Jose M. Fabregas gave an excellent talk which really impacted on me. In fact, I saw him give the same talk twice over that weekend, and its impact, increased each time, as the implications started to sink in.
One of Jose’s key references was a paper from 2014, edited by Dan L. Longo called Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use. It’s a paper that has been widely cited in debates in the US around cannabis legalisation. It is a fascinating and disturbing read, especially if you are the parent of teenaged children. If you are approaching this blog thinking “well, I smoked it in the 70s and 80s and it didn’t do me any harm”, as the paper points out, marijuana then contained around 3% THC, now it’s over 12%, in some cases up to 15%. It’s a different beast altogether, and is having far greater, and deeper impacts than it had then.
Here are some of the paper’s key points:
- 9% of marijuana smokers will develop an addiction to it. This rises to 1 in 6 if they started smoking it as adolescents. And if smoked daily in adolescence, it rises to between 25 – 50%.
- “Adults who smoked regularly during adolescence have impaired neural connectivity in specific brain regions”
- Regular use in adolescence leads to a “significant decline in IQ”, “impairs critical cognitive functions” and “lower satisfaction in life”
- “The evidence suggests that such use results in measurable and long-lasting cognitive impairments, especially among those who started young”
- “Repeated use in adolescence may result in long-lasting changes in brain function that can jeopardize educational, professional and social achievements”.
It is the impacts on the young that are of particular concern here. The human brain is still developing until the age of 21, and is especially vulnerable to the impacts outlined above. As Jose-Maria put it during his talk, “Learning is absolutely compromised by smoking cannabis”. For him, this is a particular concern in the Spanish context.
Spain has one of the lowest performing education systems in the world. In Mallorca, and across Spain, two out of every three school-age children are now smoking cannabis regularly. Addiction centres are being asked to develop programmes for 10 year olds. This is a public health epidemic with deeply troubling implications for the future.
In the US now, 8.4% of 12-17 year olds smoke cannabis. Among adolescents, as the Longo paper notes, the smoking of cannabis “may soon intersect the trend line for regular tobacco smoking”. Cannabis is the most prevalent drug of choice for young users. In the UK 5.3 million 16-24 year olds reported use in the last year. In our culture, as Longo’s paper notes, “the popular notion seems to be that marijuana is a harmless pleasure”, akin to a glass of wine. But the way it affects the adolescent brain is entirely different.
As the paper points out, and as Jose-Maria reiterated in his talk, regular use of marijuana in adolescence reduces memory, increases paranoia, reduces IQ, increases the risk of psychosis, particularly in those with a genetic predisposition to it, reduces life satisfaction and increases depression. And it’s not that the damage done will all heal itself when the smoking stops. Studies are now showing permanent damage to neural pathways, and are identifying permanent lesions on the brains of regular users. As another study notes, “cessation of cannabis use did not fully restore neuropsychological functioning among adolescent-onset cannabis users”.
This is not a great time for Spain’s youth to be self-inflicting such a disastrous legacy. The country has a 43% youth unemployment rate, a deeply polarized political system, increasingly vociferous calls for Catalonian independence, growing income disparity, high levels of emigration, especially of young people, and very high levels of indedtedness. Cuts to public spending are hitting so hard that one school recently had to ask students to bring their own toilet paper to school. And that’s before we even add climate change into the mix.
The impacts of climate change are mounting rapidly. Researchers now warn that southern Spain will be desert by 2100. 2016 is already locked into being the hottest year on record. Spain faces looking water shortages across the country, what water expert Santiago Martín Barajas warns could be “a total collapse”. There is also, ironically, an increased risk of flooding in many parts of the country. Some parts of Spain have lost 40% of their fresh water.
And what’s driving that? A recent, and excellent, report by the Next System Project identify the drivers behind the climate crisis as the growth imperative, consumerism extractivism, corporate power and political control. Big challenges.
Tackling these things will take dedicated, focused, imaginative, sociable, intelligent people giving their time and energy to it. It will take committed people building an alternative, creating viable models which can displace the existing ones. It will take powerful, dedicated minds. My concern, and Jose-Maria’s, is that we are seeing an emerging generation of young people, not just in Spain but everywhere, who are steadily less up to the task. We need people emerging from adolescence alert, curious, passionate, able to solve problems and think around challenges, to be smarter than the people creating this mess. The idea that we might not be, concerns me deeply.
Much of what young people see on Facebook and other social media about cannabis is the stories about its supposed health benefits. You’ve probably seen those viral videos. And it is true that there are some medicinal benefits. As Longo’s paper states, it can help stimulate appetite in AIDS patients, it can address some of the symptoms of nausea in chemotherapy patients, it can decrease intraocular pressure in treatment of glaucoma. But the epidemic of damage being done to a generation of young people and their prospects for the future is surely far more newsworthy, far more pressing? The ‘health benefit’ videos, I would suggest, do a lot of damage in terms of increasing its social and cultural acceptability.
So what, Jose-Maria asked, can be done about it? He was clear that he wasn’t saying that cannabis is always a bad thing under every circumstance, just that it is incompatible with studying and healthy adolescent development. He pointed out that prohibition, the War on Drugs, has failed. It just puts one set of people in prison, makes another set of people very rich, and increases violent crime.
He pointed to Mexico, where some schools have introduced compulsory drug testing and then separate students into two sets, so that those who don’t smoke get free tickets to music and sporting events, and the others go to a different school and get none of those things, but get more support with stopping smoking, more intensive and focused support.
In a conversation after the talk, when pressed on could practically be done about the epidemic facing Spain, he suggested in all seriousness that perhaps one approach would be that if students were able to steer away from cannabis use until the end of their schooling, that the education department would buy them a car. Perhaps a lower carbon version might instead be that the prize might be not having to pay tuition fees for University, but anyway, you get where he’s coming from.
The real challenge, of course, goes far deeper, drugs use is the symptom, not the cause. As Johann Hari writes in his brilliant book ‘Chasing the Scream; the first and last days of the War on Drugs’:
“The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection. It’s all I can offer…. If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance. For a hundred years we have been singing war songs about addicts. All along, we should have been singing love songs to them”.
Portugal, the poster child of Hari’s book, having, in 2001, decriminalised possession of all drugs, has a lower use of cannabis among young people than Spain, as this graph shows:
However, although legalisation has led to a fall in the use of heroin and other harder drugs, it has also led to an increase the levels of cannabis use. Some argue that this may be due to a reduction in the stigma associated with using drugs since decriminalisation. A paper by Hughes and Stevens in the British Journal of Criminology called ‘What can we learn from the Portugese decriminalisation of illicit drugs?’ shows how this increase in use of cannabis in Portugal mirrors similar increases in Spain and Italy, suggesting decriminalisation, while reducing hard drug use, has little, if any impact on cannabis use.
It’s no wonder young people are reaching for self-medication. A recent study by the NHS found that 12.6% of women in the UK aged 16-24 are showing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, 19.7% self-harm and 28.2% have a mental health conditions. As Tracy McVeigh put it recently, “the evidence suggests that rates of depression, self-harm and anxiety among young people are at unprecedented levels”. But we’re caught in a Catch 22, where the dire state of the world’s challenges needs everyone’s rallying and focus, but the scale of those challenges, and the deeply dysfunctional culture that created them, are driving people to need to block them out.
At the end of his talk, Jose recalled how when he was 16 he rode a bike everywhere, and his parents and other relatives kept telling him that he ought to wear a helmet. They explained the risks associated with not wearing one, setting out in detail why he should. But he didn’t. “And I was a right idiot”, he said. “No, actually I was an adolescent, making a mistake”. But in the context of cannabis and climate change, might it turn out to be the biggest mistake we could possibly make?
We know that the communities that look out for each other, that care about each other, are more resilient. Emma Grey Ellis, in a great piece by on why some communities in Chicago experienced high fatalities during the 1995 heatwave while some didn’t, observed:
“The variable that best explained the pattern of mortality during the Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure. Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public spaces, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organizations fared well in the disaster. More socially barren places did not. Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal”.
And we live in times that threaten to become lethal indeed. I don’t have any answers. Just deep concerns. And hopefully by sharing those concerns, we might be able to have a meaningful discussion about the issues raised above. I’d really welcome your thoughts.