Cannabis is the world’s favourite banned drug. In the UK alone, 2.1 million people have confessed to a toke – that’s 6.5% of adults aged 16 to 59, according to a 2016 report by the Home Office. It’s quite the habit. There are more than twice as many users of cannabis as there are of cocaine, for example, the next drug on the nation’s hit list.
These numbers help to explain the sizeable lobbying effort for legalisation on both sides of the Atlantic, backed up by evidence that cannabis can help people who suffer from conditions like chronic pain or multiple sclerosis. Though while drug laws are relaxed in places like Amsterdam and Colorado, cannabis usage still polarises opinion the world over. Which begs the question: is there no smoke without fire, or is the concern purely one of smoke and mirrors?
Well, it’s a bit of both according to Rob Caudell, an addiction treatment therapist at The Priory hospital group. And that all depends on your usage. So with that in mind, we broke down the real risks from an occasional dabble to a serious daily habit.
The Sporadic Spliff
The odd puff-and-pass hardly warrants a week in rehab. Instead, you can expect all the usual highs, says Caudell: calmness, happiness, relaxation, heightened senses and the infamous ‘giggles’.
Which, all in all, sound pretty great. But even the occasional drag isn’t completely without risk. “Smoking a spliff opens pathways to receptors in the brain, hence the physiological and psychological effects,” says Caudell. “The danger here is individuality; while the effects alone may seem harmless, drugs elicit different responses from different people, especially when using for the first time.”
Plus, there’s no guarantee that this chemical process can be reversed. “With the strength of cannabis available today, some of these pathways can remain open. This may lead to mental health problems such as schizophrenia, paranoia, anxiety and depression.” A risk that’s even greater during your halcyon days, says Caudell. “The human brain is not fully developed until around 25 years, so the dangers for young people are even more significant.”
Enjoy a post-office joint? You’re not alone. According to a Yahoo News study, one in seven US adults smoke weed on a regular basis to cushion the blow of full-time work. An increased usage however, increases the risk.
“Cannabis can be used to unwind, [in] much the same way one might enjoy the odd glass of wine,” says Caudell. “Excessive use however can lead to apathy, lethargy and short term memory loss.” Three things that’ll actually compromise your at-work performance.
Don’t mistake cannabis for a less-evil tobacco, either. “Studies suggest that a regular habit can increase risks normally associated with smoking tobacco, including cancer, coronary heart disease, emphysema and impotence.”
Weed is often deemed a mild alternative to ‘harder’ drugs, though an addiction to the stuff can be no less severe. A study by King’s College London showed that daily users were twice as likely to suffer a psychotic episode compared to less frequent tokers.
“Excess in most things will lead to major issues and cannabis is no exception,” says Caudell. “The mind altering effects allow users to access feelings via an unnatural process – feelings they cannot access in everyday life. Problems arise when this desire increases, and over time, the user will build up a tolerance and thus increase their dosage.”
And that’s when recreational use transforms into something darker. “The increase will start to have the opposite effect [to what was] originally intended, plunging users into depression, anxiety and other mental and physical disorders. Eventually, the user may become reliant on cannabis to function, eliciting feelings of self-loathing and self-hatred that can trigger suicidal tendencies.” All of which can be avoided by regulating your use, if not avoiding altogether.
How To Smoke Your Habit
While cannabis addiction can be life-changing, it needn’t be life-ending. Tackle the problem before it becomes one.
“Seek professional help if you’re struggling to reduce your intake, as only abstinence and mental change can bring relief,” says Caudell. “Breaking the ‘script’ can be so intense that the user becomes more fearful of the repercussions of stopping rather than what will happen if they don’t. Cannabis use, however, can be normally halted without precaution, unlike other drugs.”
There’s no shame on the therapist’s couch, either. “Further counselling can prove beneficial if there’s an underlying psychological problem, yet abstinence is the best form of protection from mind-altering substances.”
Better yet, you’re not alone should you wish to stamp it out. “Fellowship groups such as Narcotics Anonymous can also help, and if treatment is successful, you can expect to feel physically better, with normal sleeping patterns returning as anxiety starts to disappear.”