Marijuana use falling in Australia

WHILE some still want marijuana made legal, there are signs that use of Australia’s most popular illicit drug is already falling.

MORE than 30 years after the peace and love revolution when marijuana was the hippy’s drug of choice, everything has changed. It is grown differently, it is stronger and more dangerous and – despite South Australia’s reputation as the pothead state – its use is falling.

It was once thought rather daring to raise over-cultivated “pot” plants for private use. The flowering head of the plant was mixed with cannabis leaf and ordinary tobacco and smoked in an elaborately rolled joint. Today, no one bothers with anything but pure head. Police drug squads often find dumped bags of cannabis leaves that no one can be bothered with. “They (dealers) throw it out. They can’t sell it, no one will buy leaf,” says Professor Jan Overton, who directs the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre.

Some experts believe this preference for only the strongest part of the plant explains why the drug is more potent. Others say the hydroponically grown plant is simply stronger. “That’s the widely held urban myth,” says Robert Ali, who heads Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia. “I think what has changed over time is the quantities people consume, and what they consume. In the 1960s and ’70s, when people passed a joint around, that joint typically had leaf, it might have had a little bit of head, it may have had stalk.”

But there is evidence that cannabis itself is becoming stronger in Australia. The Australian Federal Police is working with NCPIC to compile data on the comparative strength of cannabis seized in Sydney and the NSW North Coast. Overton says the study is not final but it is confirming the relative strength of hydroponically grown marijuana. “I think it is certainly revealing what we expected: that growers here get their seeds from Europe where the potencies are higher, and as a result they are growing high-potency cannabis in Australia as well,” she says.

A recent study published in the Lancet medical journal all but named Australians as the biggest cannabis users in the world. The report says that in 2010, almost 15 per cent of 15 to 64-year-olds in the Oceania region – which includes Australia, PNG and New Zealand – used cannabis the previous year, double the rates of North and South America. That would put South Australians among the heaviest users of a drug with links to mental illness.

According to Overton, the World Drug Report figures on which the Lancet report was based were distorted. While Australian usage rates are high, other countries are higher, like North America where 35 per cent of 17-year-olds had used cannabis in the past year compared with 21.6 per cent here. The trend among young people is slowly – if irregularly – falling.

Even on a national level, South Australians are not the worst offenders. SA’s 11.3 per cent rate was well behind Western Australia (13.4 per cent) and the Northern Territory (16.5 per cent). This compares with 1998 when 17.6 per cent of South Australians used cannabis in the previous 12 months. SA is no longer the marijuana state.

Marijuana is still the most widely used illicit substance in the world. The number of people who had used cannabis at least once in 2008 was between 129 and 191 million, or 4.3 per cent of the world’s population. While many people experiment and move on, marijuana has been convincingly connected to mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. A single bad cannabis episode can trigger lifelong schizophrenia, particularly in teenage boys.

“Certainly it’s not for everyone,” says Michael Balderstone, who heads the Hemp Embassy in Nimbin, NSW. “If you’ve got mental health problems you should be careful with every drug, although historically cannabis was used for mental health problems.”

There is hard evidence that in some circumstances, cannabis destroys lives. An Australian and a New Zealand study that followed babies for almost three decades found that young people who use cannabis before the age of 15 increase their risk of schizophrenia six-fold. Later in life, the risk is doubled. The teenage drop-out syndrome has also been verified, with a causal connection established between cannabis use and school failure. “It accounts for about 17 per cent of the risk of someone leaving school without any qualifications,” says Overton. “That is over and above everything else – the unique contribution of cannabis use.”

The one aspect of drug culture that seems not to have changed is the polarity between anti-drug campaigners who oppose cannabis in any form, and those who want it legalised. According to Family First MP Robert Brokenshire, cannabis is a gateway drug to more serious drug abuse, and trafficking. Random dog searches at Adelaide’s Franklin St bus depot frequently turn up small-time dealers taking advantage of the absence of bag screening to traffic across the border, he says.

In the other corner, cannabis activist and blogger “Ree Hash” wants cannabis use made legal. She argues there will always be people who use it and they should not be treated as criminals for choices that affect no one but themselves. She says the link with mental health can work both ways, and cannabis can help as well as harm. Besides, she says, legalisation does not mean that more people would use it. “If heroin was legal tomorrow, does that mean you would go out and try it?” says Ree Hash “Most people would probably say no.”

And more people are saying no. Robert Ali says the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s national household survey on drug use showed substantial and persistent reductions since the 1990s. Why this is happening no one is quite sure, although it may mirror a health-related shift away from smoking in general. Ali says awareness of the risks may have risen. “I think those harms were dismissed by many people throughout the 2000s, but in recent times the mental health disorders associated with heavy, intensive cannabis use have become a lot clearer,” he says.

NCPIC says it has had “incredible success” aiming its mental health messages at 14 to 19-year-old boys. The campaign in Australia seems to have worked, while the cannabis lobby in the US has moved the other way by persuading authorities of the benefits of “medical marijuana”, effectively legalising its use for some people. So while rates among young people in Australia are going down, those in the US are going up.

“It’s a public perception issue,” says Overton. “In Australia, the mood has switched against cannabis.”

Source: The Advertiser, Australia May 19th 2012

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