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Medical cannabis: Getting lost in the smoke and forgetting that the drug can be highly problematic for some

Over the past year we have seen a very interesting change in the way we have been speaking about cannabis in Australia. The medical cannabis debate has hit the headlines and we have seen a major reframing of how we talk about this issue – all of a sudden it’s all about children … stories about very young children suffering greatly due to a range of conditions (but mostly epilepsy or conditions where seizures are involved) and how bureaucracies are preventing these very young people getting the ‘medicine’ they so urgently need. We have seen stories on all the tabloid current affairs shows, the News Ltd papers (usually very ‘anti-drug’) have covered this topic very aggressively and even Alan Jones has come out in support of making cannabis available for medical purposes … You’d have to say that the airing of SBS’s Insight program a couple of weeks ago really brought it all to a head, with the program going even one step further by asking viewers to take part in a poll asking whether cannabis should be legalised (85% of viewers believed it should be!).

The shift has been fascinating to watch and you have to give credit where credit is due, the medical cannabis lobby has been incredibly effective at shifting public opinion on the topic in a very short time, simply by focussing attention on one very small group of people who would appear to benefit greatly from medicinal cannabis being made available … Now I’m not here to debate whether or not medical cannabis should be made available – I have made my views clear on that issue a number of times but I am concerned that if we do go down that path we need to be aware that there are things that need to be considered as far as young people and education and information provision are concerned.

Like any drug, cannabis can cause significant problems for some people. Many people who use cannabis will do so a few times, or even regularly over many years, and experience no major problems – that certainly needs to be acknowledged. There are some, however, who should never use the drug, particularly those who have a predisposition to mental health problems. We also know that the earlier you start using cannabis, the greater the risk of future problems, so preventing use for as long as possible is important. There are also others who will try the drug once and have a terrifying experience … Here is an email I received from a student that illustrates this perfectly …

“When I was in year 11 I went to a party. I had been drinking, as 16/17 year old girls do, when I saw some older kids
sitting around smoking and I drunkenly wandered over and asked them if they
were smoking weed. They said yes and asked if I wanted some… I told them I was probably too drunk and shouldn’t but the girl, who I had previously looked
up to, said “YOLO” (literally) and in my drunken state I agreed and
smoked some. Before I knew it my world started whirling around me and the last
thing I remember was the older kids looking at each other and saying
“shit” before walking away. I curled up in a ball and passed

What followed was honestly the most terrible experience
I’ve ever had. I had moments when I felt as if my body was being brutally
shaken around, and I remember, after some time of nothing and blackness, my
mind telling itself that it can’t survive anymore, that I had to “give
up” and get taken to hospital in order to be saved. I am normally known as
a studious girl who is sensible but social, you know the type, and all of a
sudden my mind was a mess and yelling at itself that it shouldn’t be me that
this is happening to. On top of that, the complete embarassment that I caused
to myself was ridiculous. People were slapping me to try and wake me up, and I
was apparently using the most disgusting language whenever I gained
consciousness before becoming unconscious again. An ambulance was eventually
called and I had begun gaining consciousness once they arrived so they just
stayed and tried to keep me awake for a while. My parents were away that
weekend and had to come home early from a holiday once they heard the news.
They dealt with it really well – I called up all the parents who had been
slapping me and apologised for my deplorable language and what had happened and
went out to the house of the party to personally apologise to the birthday boy
and his parents. I lost the respect of so many people and honestly just the
memory makes me feel sick.”

Of course, there will be people who will say that the reason this girl had this effect was because she was drunk and I agree that the alcohol probably made the whole experience much worse. But let’s not forget that cannabis is a drug and things can go wrong, sometimes horribly wrong.

What concerns me is that young people across the country are currently getting a very strong message that ‘cannabis is a medicine’ (really little children are being given it – regardless of whether it is cannabis oil or whatever, the only thing school students are picking up is that it is cannabis) and that means that it is okay and are messing around with something that in some cases can cause great harm (at the very least it’s illegal – even if medical cannabis is introduced, there is no way that I can see it being legalized in this country in the foreseeable future). Before someone throws in that pharmaceutical products are toxic and can cause far greater harm – I agree completely and that is certainly a message that I push very hard with kids (medicines come in boxes with instructions because if they are used inappropriately they can be extremely dangerous, and even when used correctly they are by no means ‘safe’) and that’s certainly a message that is provided to students from a very early age in their health education programs. The problem with the current message about very young children being given cannabis as a medicine is that there is no other information being provided at the same time and Australian young people are getting a very skewed message about the drug that minimises the risks associated with cannabis (arguably just as skewed as the one that governments have pushed about the drug for decades). There must be a middle-ground somewhere!

If any Australian jurisdiction decides to go ahead with a medical cannabis trial I just hope that they think it through carefully and at the same time as funding the research, they also put some money into some sort of information campaign that informs and educates the community about what ‘cannabis as a medicine’ actually means. Hopefully this doesn’t turn into a scare campaign, trying to make out that cannabis will rot your brain and turn everybody who uses it into a dribbling mess, but rather provide up-to-date and credible information that will support parents and anyone who works with young people in their discussions around this extremely complex issue.

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