Is cannabis, a relatively safe drug in adults, more toxic in teenagers?

The mayhem an estimated 900 troubled youths impose on the West Belfast community – a community of 100,000 souls – is staggering according to a N. Ireland Assembly report which is putting in place a support programme to turn lives around.  These individuals, mostly males, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, act antisocially which is a problem yes but the real worry is that, for a small but significant number at least, self-harm and suicide is a real possibility from their chaotic lives.

A “surge” in suicides in North and West Belfast some years back caused the NI Assembly to hurry through a report from its Taskforce on Suicide.   It’s about “actions not words” said the Task Force, and then went on to make recommendations and action points on other recommendations and action points that someone failed to deliver in previous suicide reports.   But the Task Force always knew, while failing to point out, that there can be few quick fixes to this pernicious public health problem.

International statistics gives the scale of global suicide and it’s increasing everywhere.   N. Ireland, bad as things are, does pretty well compared to Russia and Lithuania and our problem is not as great as that of Scotland’s being roughly similar to the Republic.

What is clear from the N. Ireland data is that, when men between the ages of 20 and 44 are removed from the statistics, suicide rates go back to baseline.  To tackle the problem effectively we must understand what is going on yet the Taskforce failed to address the possibility that suicides representing the “surge” might differ materially from the inherent suicides rates that form the “baseline” in any society.  Was there something else explaining the surge?   Is it still happening? Could this something be recreational drug use in teenage years?

It’s certainly complex and it is just too easy and too politically self-serving to identify social deprivation and poverty as the only problems in suicide.   These factors certainly contribute but I have stood by many parents, right across the social spectrum, wondering how their little angle turned into the devil incarnate in the time it takes Dr Jekyll to turn into Mr Hyde.  Sadly, they don’t turn back the next morning.  A growing body of evidence identifies the impact of cannabis use on young developing brains; evidence many seem unwilling to accept.

Amy Winehouse and Jack Landesman were hardly ordinary working class youth but they are high profile examples of this potential link.  Amy Winehouse – who died at age 27 – did not officially die as a result of a suicide; Jack Landesman did.  The lives of these very different young people highlight a potential and important increased risk of suicide linked to recreational drug use in teenage years.

Psychotropic drugs – marijuana particularly – taken from early teens, seems to modify the brain’s development, at a critical brain development stage, and this modification makes individuals incapable of linking to others in a meaningful and empathic way.  Marijuana ‘hijacks’ the brain’s reward system and in doing so it causes addiction in about 10% of regular users.  Smoking marijuana certainly dampens the brain’s ability to react positively to rewards – monetary or otherwise. Scientists from the University of Michigan discovered that the diminution of reward responses in marijuana users can make them more susceptible to becoming addicted to cannabis or other drugs. The results come from a long-term study monitoring the brain responses of 108 marijuana users in their early twenties. They all had MRI scans of their brain at three points over a period of four years. Something that would be rewarding to most people is no longer rewarding to a marijuana user; their emotional response has been dampened. Marijuana changes your brain in a way that may change your behaviour and where you get your sense of reward from.

People who use cannabis when young are at higher risk of becoming emotionally dead, failing to get any joy out of life, constantly on alert and failing to share.   Jack Landesman was the son of the author and writer Julie Burchill who accepted his teenage drug taking was a problem but did not link it to his death.  His father Cosomo Landesman thinks differently.  In a poignant piece written by Jack, and published after his death, he chillingly and tragically explained the lack of joy in his life and his wish to end it.   Amy Winehouse, whose life is beautifully and tragically portrayed in a documentary film, shows a similar behaviour pattern.

Many of the problem teenagers now being supported in the West Belfast initiative – the 900 – are frequent drug users – with cannabis their primary drug of choice – and as a result the job of turning around their lives will be that much more difficult.  There is a widely held assumption that cannabis is a safe drug, and relatively speaking it is, but increasingly we are coming to realise that it is much more toxic as it disrupts the developing brain.

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