Thursday 22 February 2018

The day I discovered my 12-year-old son was smoking cannabis

The adolescent years are tricky enough to negotiate but what if your kid starts dabbling with drugs? Suzanne Harrington knows all the signs

Suzanne Harrington
Suzanne Harrington
Going up in smoke: A teenager prepares a joint
Medicinal cannabis bill: People Before Profit TD Gino Kennysays drug use should be seen as a health issue

When my son was 12, he called me one afternoon after school sounding distressed. I've done something really stupid, he said. Come and get me.

I found him in a nearby park with some friends, white as a sheet, looking scared and unwell. He'd smoked weed for the first time and was in the throes of a whitey. He was with some school friends the same age, who had also smoked, but were fine, apart from being concerned about my son. They had their arms around him. They looked a bit awkward and sheepish.

Suzanne Harrington:
Suzanne Harrington:

Back home, my son felt terrible - nauseous and out of it. He lay in bed, ashen, as I reassured him that it would pass. Secretly I was delighted. This should put him off weed for life.

When it had worn off - followed by an epic attack of the munchies where he resembled The Tiger Who Came To Tea - he said it had been a horrible experience which he never wished to repeat. Inwardly, I swooned with relief.

Except of course he did repeat the experience. Not immediately, but within about a year - as do many of the kids at his school.

But as an ex-cannabis smoker myself, I know what even the subtlest signs of stoned look like, and so on the handful of occasions he smoked again, I confronted him immediately, which made him think I was some kind of psychic sniffer dog.

Obviously I can't follow my son, now almost 14, every time he leaves the house, but instead I have told him how smoking weed before the age of 15 makes you four times more likely to develop psychosis.

I reminded him of the three different men we know in their twenties and thirties - family friends - who still live at home with their mums, on long term anti-psychotic medication for their weed-induced mental illnesses.

Going up in smoke: A teenager prepares a joint
Going up in smoke: A teenager prepares a joint

I told him about the Australian study of 1,600 teenagers which showed that smoking when aged 14-15 was five times more likely to lead to depression. I bombarded him with information, facts and knowledge. To which he mostly continues to reply, "Yeah, whatever."

To the best of my knowledge, he does not currently smoke. Short of locking him in his room until he is 35, I don't have another solution.

It's a problem that plagues many parents - even A-listers aren't immune. Last year, Madonna and her ex-husband Guy Ritchie stood by their 16-year-old son Rocco after reports surfaced that he had been arrested for possession of cannabis in London.

In terms of side effects, developing serious mental illness as a result of smoking weed as a teenager is relatively unusual - according to the Royal College of Physicians, psychosis affects only one in 200 people.

What is far more usual is mundane, but still negative - cannabis use badly interferes with academic progress and achievement.

A Canadian study from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, shows that students who use cannabis more than once a month are about four times more likely to bunk off school, and between two and four times more likely to not complete homework or care about their grades; they are half as likely to achieve high grades as those who don't use cannabis.

There was also a 50pc drop in ambition to attend university - cannabis, while not a cause of aggression like alcohol, is quite a demotivator.

The human brain does not stop developing until the early twenties, which is why drug and alcohol use in teenagers - a life stage prone to experimentation and risk-taking - is not ideal. According to the authors of the Canadian research, other studies have shown that adults who smoked cannabis regularly during adolescence have reduced neural connectivity in brain areas that deal with memory, learning and inhibitions.

"We've seen reductions in the number of youths perceiving marijuana as harmful, yet they have greater vulnerability to adverse consequences," said Karen Patte, author of the research.

"We found that the more frequently students started using the drug, the greater their risk of poor school performance and engagement."

In Ireland, a 2014 study from the NUI Galway for the HSBC (Health Behaviour of School Aged Children) found that only about 10pc of Irish 13-17 year olds have used cannabis, compared with 51pc who had used alcohol.

Alcohol has always been Ireland's drug of choice, although cannabis is soon to be legalised for medicinal use, thanks to a bill proposed by independent TD Gino Kelly.

"I believe that cannabis should be decriminalised," he says. "I support the Portuguese model - where all drugs are decriminalised, which means more lives are saved.

"Drug use needs to be seen as a health issue, not a criminal issue. Having said that, young people must be very careful when it comes to alcohol or cannabis use as it can adversely affect their personal development.

"I've seen the effects of drug abuse in my community growing up - if you abuse any drug, it's detrimental to your well-being.

"Cannabis is not good for teens."

This does not stop teens from experimenting, and scoffing at adults for being middle-aged fun-sponge buzzkills.

The truth is that many teens who try weed will not be significantly negatively impacted, but that doesn't make it any less worrying as a parent - will your kid be the one to develop psychosis? Drop out of school?

Lose all ambition and motivation, staying in their bedroom until they are middle aged themselves?

It's a bit too easy to catastrophise, especially as the cannabis adults used to smoke in the past - boring old hash - has been replaced with brain-melting hydroponic product.

"This is the area of risk that causes more worry for parents than almost any other," writes psychologist Dr John Coleman in his book Why Won't My Teenager Talk To Me?

However, Dr Coleman reassures us that "there is a big difference between addiction and experimentation in a leisure context", and urges us to remember what it is to be a teenager, while acknowledging that cannabis from the 1970s and 1980s was a far less potent substance than currently, and was therefore regarded as relatively harmless.

This is not really the case anymore, thanks to the significantly increased amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, present in what is smoked today.

So what can you do? The truthful answer seems to be not much, other than being supportive, knowledgeable, and setting firm boundaries.

Or as the UK National Health Service advises: "Don't panic. Show your love and concern rather than anger." And exhale.

Irish Independent

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