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What do I say when my child asks about medical cannabis?

The issue of medical cannabis poses an increasingly difficult problem for those trying to provide cannabis prevention messages to young people. Since a number of American states have made ‘medical marijuana’ available I have had more and more students question why the drug is illegal in this country if it used as a ‘medicine’ in other countries. I’m also being asked by parents attending my presentations how best to handle questions around the issue …

I’m not the biggest fan of American TV comedies but recently I have watched a couple of such shows that have based the week’s episode around the availability of medical cannabis – as you can imagine, hilarity ensues! When you think how much our society is saturated with American pop-culture references and how much these influence our day-to-day life, it’s not surprising that some young Australians are starting to believe that cannabis is also available in this country for therapeutic purposes.
Even those in the ‘pro-cannabis’ camp acknowledge that the earlier a person starts using the drug, the greater the risks (what those risks are causes the great debate), so it is important to try to prevent early use of cannabis whenever possible. So what do we know about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and what do we tell young people to clarify the issue and not confuse our basic prevention messages? 
There’s no getting away from the fact that
the medical uses of cannabis have been recognized for thousands of years.
Physicians in ancient China used it to relieve constipation, loss of appetite
and pain during childbirth. However, with the development of pharmaceutical
drugs in the 20th century, herbal cures in general fell into disuse. In recent
times, however, more and more people have been searching for alternative
remedies that may have fewer side effects than the medicines they have been
prescribed by their doctors.

Although there are often existing therapies
available for the medical conditions that cannabis may be used to treat, some
people experience severe reactions when they are used or they simply don’t work
effectively for them. Cannabis appears to offer an alternative for those
people. Some of these conditions include:
  • pain relief
  • nausea and vomiting, particularly in those people who are having chemotherapy for cancer
  • wasting, or severe weight loss, in people who may have cancer or AIDS
  • neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS)

Although some people smoke cannabis for
therapeutic reasons, there are many researchers around the world who are
currently trying to develop synthetic products that work in a similar way to
cannabis. We use the term ‘cannabinoids’ to refer to pharmaceutical quality
drugs that act in the same way in the body as some substances in the cannabis
plant, such as THC.
It is very important to remember that
cannabis and cannabinoids are useful to relieve symptoms of illnesses, but do
not cure the underlying disease.
Using cannabis for medical reasons is all
about ‘weighing up the pros and cons’. There are a range of negative
consequences associated with cannabis use, some of them linked to smoking the
drug, others that are not. One of the most significant of these, particularly for young people, is that the
drug continues to be illegal across Australia. A person who uses cannabis for medical reasons and gets caught
is not exempt from prosecution. These risks need to be remembered. However, if
a person is dying from cancer, is in great pain and does not have long to live,
and all the pharmaceutical drugs in the world have not made any difference, the
possibility of some relief can make cannabis appear very attractive.
When Sid called me to ask me questions
about cannabis and its effects, I was immediately impressed by the older
gentleman. He had been married to his wife, Mary, for over 50 years and for the
past few years she had been extremely ill as a result of cancer. She had been
bed-ridden for the past six months and had been in great pain. The doctors had
tried every type of pain killer and none had been effective. The doctors said
that she did not have much time to live and the best they could do was to keep
her as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately they didn’t seem to be doing a
very good job.
Sid had heard about cannabis from another
partner of someone with cancer who had experienced some major pain relief after
smoking cannabis. Sid finally went to one of his grandsons and asked him to
purchase the drug so he could see if it would have a similar effect on his
wife. He had used the drug in a tea and saw an immediate effect on his wife and
desperately wanted to know more.
He told me that he could not buy the drug
through his family anymore. He was well aware that the drug was illegal and did
not want to expose any of his family members to the legal ramifications but he
did not know where to turn next. I referred him to some pro-cannabis websites
that may give him some information and wished him well.
Over six months later Sid called me to tell
me that Mary had died. The last few months had been almost pain free for the
woman due to some cannabis that Sid had been able to purchase through a website
he had found which specifically helped people like him.
Sid had a major moral dilemma. He did not
approve of illegal drugs and he had read up on the health effects of cannabis
and was well aware of the legal risks that he was taking. He had ‘weighed up
the pros and cons’ of using the drug, however, and felt that in his
circumstance it was worth the risk to improve Mary’s quality of life.
When you discuss this topic with your
children there are a whole pile of moral issues that come into play. For most
parents, this conversation with your teenagers is not going to be as simple as
easy as ‘cannabis is a medicine’ or ‘cannabis is illegal’. This is a complex
area and one that can stimulate interesting debate and thought from all

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If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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