Saturday, 14 June 2014

Cannabis in schools: Why are things changing and what can we do about it?

I can count on one hand the number of schools I have visited recently that haven't been having issues with cannabis. These include students coming to school stoned, small groups of young people starting to demonstrate some clear issues with their cannabis use, particularly around mental health, and unfortunately, others bringing it to school and/or selling the drug to others.
 
Realistically many schools often don't have the resources to deal with cannabis-related issues. Counselling staff are already pushed to breaking point and few have a great deal of experience when it comes to drug-related issues, so when it comes to cannabis-related problems, many don't have the time or the experience to deal with them effectively. Add to that the illegality of the drug, it is not surprising that schools' first (and in some cases, only) response is to suspend or expel the student. Over the past three weeks I have received three emails from students, all of whom were caught with cannabis at school, asking me for my help. Here is one of them (please note I have edited any personal information that was provided):
 
I attend High School in Year 12. I have been found with 1 ounce of cannabis in my possession at school and look like getting expelled tomorrow.
Can you please give me some assistance in handling this issue. Is it reasonable to be expelled?

As I said to the young man in my email response, one ounce of cannabis is a fair amount and when you have that much in your possession at school, it is fair to assume that you were either selling or giving it other people! Why else would you have it there with you? I never heard back from him so I don't know what happened to him and whether he was expelled or not but this is a story I keep hearing around the country, although those that are being caught are usually much younger (typically around Year 9) ...
 
Over the past 10 years I have reduced the amount of time I spend on discussing cannabis in my talks to schools. Research indicated that use amongst secondary students had decreased dramatically since the 90s and that was certainly my experience in the classroom. Fewer young people were using, in fact, it was really seen by many as a bit of a 'loser's drug'. The comical 'stoner' persona did not appeal to many teens and the link to mental health issues really seemed to resonate with many young people. Don't get me wrong - it hadn't disappeared completely! It was just that it wasn't as popular as it once was and getting 'stoned' had almost become an anti-social thing to do ... The last ASSAD Survey saw a reversal of that trend, however, with 'past year' cannabis use increasing amongst young people for the first time since 1996. Without doubt, I think we will continue to see that rise in the next survey data.
 
So why have things changed? When it comes to looking for reasons why this is happening I think you most probably have to say it is because we are now talking about cannabis in a much more positive way, what with discussion about the medical use of the drug, as well as the legalisation debate that is currently happening in many parts of the world. Without fail, the first question I get after my presentation where I discuss cannabis is either "Why is it illegal if it can be used as a medicine in some countries?" or "Why has Washington made it legal if it is so bad for you?" Talking about a drug more positively certainly leads to an increase in use ... no surprises there!
 
I'm not going to get into the whole 'should it be legalised' or 'should medicinal cannabis be made available in this country' debate, but whatever your stand on it and whatever happens in the future, we've got to work out what we do with young people who get into trouble (whatever that trouble may be) with this drug. I very much doubt whether it will ever be legalised in this country but it looks like increasingly likely that medicinal cannabis will be available (in some form or another) at some point - if that happens, how are we going to deal with the issue as far as school-based young people are concerned?
 
There are a few simple facts we need to remember about cannabis that really no-one can dispute (although I'm sure there will be someone out there who will!):
  • most people who use cannabis don't experience major problems with the drug
  • those who do have problems, usually have major problems that not only adversely affect them but everyone around them
  • the younger you start using the drug, the greater the risk of a range of problems
  • no matter what legislative changes are made in the future, there is no government that will ever make cannabis legally available to those under 18 years of age, i.e., there will always be a 'black market' for this age group

Most of the pro-cannabis lobby people I know agree with me that school-based young people should not be using the drug and it is important to try and prevent uptake for as long as possible. Most acknowledge that the risks are much greater, particularly around mental health, the younger you start to use cannabis.

I had a Year 11 young man approach me this week after my talk because he had just started using cannabis after he had read on the internet that it would help him with his Asperger's! He was finding that it was making him very depressed and he was losing his motivation and feeling tired all the time. Of course we immediately went to the school counsellor and discussed what was happening but this example illustrates what we're starting to see ...

As a result of the changes to cannabis laws in the US, we are seeing cannabis discussed in a very different way, particularly in the mainstream media. You can't watch an American comedy show today without at least one or two jokes about someone getting access to cannabis and it all being totally hysterical that one of the characters was able to get stoned for 'medical reasons'. Don't get me wrong - I laugh as well -  some of the jokes are really funny! But it means that young people are getting a very different message about cannabis than in the past. Sure watching someone doing something really stupid whilst stoned can be funny (and bongs are hysterical, at least as far as teens are concerned) but there is another side to cannabis for some people and that is not being discussed. Add to that the growing number of celebrities who talk about their personal use of the drug and the benefits they derive from cannabis (thank you Miley Cyrus!), young people are far less likely to be hearing balanced messages that include the potential harms ... Once again, we don't want to go down the 'Reefer Madness' road and use scare tactics to terrify students by saying their brains are going to 'fry' if they have one puff, but there must be a middle ground somewhere.

Schools battle with so many issues and thankfully, cannabis has not been a major one for many of them over the past decade. That certainly appears to be changing. We need to respond and quickly!
  • the education we provide in schools is going to have to change to some degree. Young people believe so little of what we tell them about illicit drugs anyway, now we also have to battle American culture that often makes cannabis look like a big joke with few, if any, negative consequences. Providing balanced and accurate information, including issues around medicinal use and legalisation/decriminalisation, is imperative. Sure, not everyone is going to experience problems with cannabis, but there are negative consequences and they need to be aware of them!
  • schools are also going to need to find a way of dealing with those young people who end up experiencing problems with the drug. Many of these students have existing mental health problems and appear to be attracted to the drug due to its effects. Young people who have issues with drugs and have a mental health problem are difficult to deal with and services are scarce
  • uniform policies across all systems need to be adopted on how to deal with students who bring cannabis to school and these need to be communicated effectively across the whole community. Kids make mistakes and branding them a 'cannabis dealer' at the age of 15 and expelling them can be incredibly damaging but what can you do? I've got to be honest and say I don't know what the answer is, but there has to be one ...

Of course, it's not just the school's problem - let's not forget, when it comes to young people, it's a partnership between the parents and the school. But I'll talk about parents and cannabis in my next blog ...

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