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Getting high a bad trip for young minds

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Young people who regularly light up a joint are putting themselves at risk of serious mental health problems that could devastate their lives, researchers have found.

As the nation begins preparations for its first-ever clinical trial of medicinal cannabis, two separate studies have underlined the potential dangers posed by recreational use of the drug, finding that teenagers who are regular users are more likely to drop out of school, become dependent on it or other drugs later in life, and be at far greater risk of developing psychotic disorders or attempting suicide.

An Australian-led inquiry by the Cannabis Cohorts Research Consortium, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, has found that the more teenagers regularly smoked cannabis, the greater the chances they would leave school early, flunk a degree, develop an illicit drug habit or try to kill themselves.

The investigation, which aggregated data from three large longitudinal Australia and New Zealand studies involving between 2500 and 3765 subjects each, looked at the frequency of cannabis use among teenagers younger than 17 years, and how they fared up to the age of 30 years.

The researchers, led by Dr Edmund Silins, found “clear and consistent associations…between the frequency of adolescent cannabis use and all adverse young adult outcomes”.

In particular, they found those who were daily users were little more than a third as likely to finish school or complete a degree as those who abstained, were almost 18 times more likely to be drug dependent, and seven times more likely to attempt to commit suicide.

In further evidence of the potentially devastating effects of cannabis on young brains, a separate study by Professor Wayne Hall of King’s College London linked cannabis use to long-term mental health problems as well as a range of other serious effects.

Professor Hall’s study, published in the journal Addiction, found that cannabis use doubles the risk of developing psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, as well as impairing intellectual development, substantially increasing the chances of a car accident and making the development of cancer, bronchitis and heart disease more likely.

Researchers said the findings showed that any change to laws regulating the use of cannabis should be carefully considered.

“Prevention or delay of cannabis use in adolescence is likely to have broad health and social benefits,” Dr Silins and his colleagues wrote. “Efforts to reform cannabis legislation should be carefully assessed to ensure they reduce adolescent cannabis use and prevent potentially adverse developmental effects.”

Mark Winstanley, of the UK charity Rethink Mental Illness, told the Adelaide Advertiser that “too often cannabis is wrongly seen as a safe drug but…there is a clear link with psychosis and schizophrenia, especially for teenagers”.

Adrian Rollins