Gone to Pot: Why marijuana remains a highly risky habit
As debate around cannabis focuses on its value as a medicine and on the wisdom of decriminalising its recreational use, it's easy to forget that this is a drug that can ravage young people's lives
Mary's* son was 15 when she became concerned that he was smoking cannabis. Over the next two years, despite repeated attempts to get him to stop, she watched as his life unravelled and he became disengaged with his family, old friends and school.
Mary, who lives in South County Dublin, says her son - who is one of five children - never wanted for anything in life and never gave her a day's worry until he started smoking. She says she's speaking out to warn other parents about the dangers posed by street cannabis.
"He started to go off the rails when he was 15. He changed his friends and he started hanging out with other kids. They were all middle-class kids in privileged schools in South County Dublin. You could not get more middle-class kids than these. The sequence of events is quite blurred now, but I remember I became concerned about him and it was hard to keep track of him at night and at the weekends," says Mary.
Strangers would come to the door. People kept ringing her son and he became fixated on money. He got through the Leaving Cert but didn't attain anything like the grades he was capable of, according to his mother.
Around this time, she wrote him a letter detailing his behaviour and the impact it was having on her and the rest of the family.
"I'm sorrier than I can ever possibly say about what has happened. I'm heartbroken at the loss of my beautiful boy. All I ever wanted was the best for him," she says.
In the years he was smoking, Mary says she ended up paying for her son's drug debts after being terrified by unknown people coming to the door. "I watched him change from a happy-go-lucky kid into someone who had given up everything except smoking. He had no relationship with his siblings. His siblings asked why he did not want to eat or talk with them, and they watched me always upset. His dad wanted to tell them the truth.
"He was panicking because he owed so much money. I'd clean out his room because I couldn't live with the smell. The aggression was terrible. I've met so many parents and their stories are the same. They are devastated at the loss of their sons to weed," she says.
Mary says her son ran up debts of thousands. "People think it's ridiculous; that you couldn't spend all that money on weed but they get it on tick. They smoke a bit and sell a bit to keep their own habit going. Pretty soon they are up to their oxters in debt and robbing Peter to pay Paul. My son eventually moved on to cocaine and so did many of his friends."
A year ago, her son came to her and said he was ready to pick up the threads of his life and he came home again after a period out of the house. Mary says she recognises her son again and says he's in a good place but she wonders about the young people who don't have family or financial support.
"We knew about his drug use as soon as it was happening but we were powerless to stop it. The reaction from many people I know is that they're incredulous that weed could be such a problem. People think 'it's only a bit of hash'. It might as well be heroin. This can happen to anyone. Don't think this is just a problem in socially deprived areas. We need to start a real conversation about this," says Mary.
"Parents can bury their heads in the sand about this and hope their kids will come out the other end. They have no idea how bad it can get. I have no problem with legalisation of medicinal cannabis and young guys shouldn't have their lives ruined by being stopped with a joint, but this woolly liberal bullshit about legalisation of cannabis in general is a disaster for many teenagers out there," she says.
Seeing the danger signs
Tom* never thought his son would be someone to get into trouble with drugs. As a family, they'd often talked about the harm of drug taking but when he was 15, his son started to display behaviour like dropping out of his regular activities and becoming withdrawn.
"We were not new to parenting - we knew the danger signs. He was starting to miss school. He did everything in a selfish way and to his own timetable. These are common usage traits we now know," says Tom.
"Within 12 months there were signs of regular use. It wasn't just occasional or weekends only - it was happening during the week. We would get a smell of the smoke off his clothes. Initially he was denying it and there was an element of defiance from him that it should be legalised. He'd say things like 'alcohol is a drug' to try and justify himself," he says.
"The mood swings were terrible and it affected everyone in the house. We were advised medically about this - that it has a calming effect while taking it and then a huge drop with anxiety and anger and shouting and roaring. This was coupled with non-attendance in school.
"We were getting deeper and deeper into despair. We were trying to impress upon him that if there were issues he wasn't happy with, we could help. It disrupted the household hugely and we ended up walking on egg shells wondering if this was going to be a good day or a bad day? If it was a good day, we'd wonder when the next explosion was going to be," says Tom.
"All the things you've nurtured in your child are gradually eroded. The group they are in becomes their world. It's a very insular world and the only self-worth they have is in that group. Our son was a very happy, affectionate and popular boy. He did all the various sports. He would have made school teams and that required training. The danger signs were disengagement with school and sport. Friends he had when he was younger, he stopped hanging around with them."
Tom and his wife watched as their son became more and more disengaged. He left school. He stopped taking care of basic things like his own hygiene. While things have improved, Tom says they're not sure their son is still not using. "We've fought over it, we've cried over it. Every emotion that you have gets dragged through this. I'm very open-minded if someone says there's positives to medicinal cannabis - I'm sure there is - but the cannabis that's on the streets is different. "What I find most frustrating is that people say 'it's only cannabis he's using' or 'it's only a joint or a few joints - what's the harm?' There are some people who may be able to smoke a joint every now and then and it doesn't affect their daily lives, but the problem for someone else is that its effects are much worse," says Tom.
"I think we need to be more open about this - in schools and in the media - and find people that young people really look up to who can relay the message that there's no good at the end of this."
While Tom says his son "isn't there yet", he and his wife are hopeful that it's not too late. "Despite all of this we're both 'glass half full'. We look for any signs of progress. When we see it, we try to acknowledge it," he says.
Meeting other parents through support groups let Tom know his family was not alone. Through the support groups he's also learned that the cannabis that's available to buy on the streets today is much more addictive and toxic than what was available 20 years ago.
"I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. All we want is for our son to be happy. The biggest problem is the attitudes out there. We'll do everything we can and hope maturity starts to kick in at some stage," he says.
*Asterisks indicates that the names in this report have been changed to protect identities