Why do so many young people smoke weed?

by Beatrice Tabone

The familiar smell of weed lingers in the air as I walk near my school campus. Huddles of young people with joints are standing in clouds of smoke. Of course, everybody here knows what effects this drug can have. According to the NIDA (National Institute for Drug Abuse), marijuana can cause multiple health problems, physical as well as psychological ones. So why do so many young people ignore the facts and still consume cannabis?

As a person inhales the smoke, respiratory pathways and the lungs are gradually damaged, and over the years, in extreme cases, this can lead to bronchitis and even lung cancer.

Additionally, the mind-altering chemical THC contained in many cannabis products overstimulates certain parts of the brain. That is what makes people “high”. As Wendy (not her real name), a fifteen-year-old student at Realgymnasium puts it: “Most of the time it’s funny. Your brain feels numb and it’s hard to focus. You can relax. Everything is slower and you can feel dizzy. If it’s really bad, people can get anxiety and panic attacks. But that depends on their environment.”

Especially when people are still young and the brain is still developing, cannabis can cause difficulty with thinking and an impaired memory and learning. If a person consumes marijuana regularly over many years, some of these effects can become irreversible.

These are things we were all taught about at school. And still, cannabis is by far the most popular illegal drug in Switzerland, as stated by the BAG (Bundesamt für Gesundheit, Switzerland’s official health department).

The numbers of young people in Switzerland consuming cannabis with high THC content are higher than in most other European countries. Every four years, a worldwide survey is conducted by the HBSC (Health Behaviour of School Children), in collaboration with the World Health Organization. They looked at, among other things, the cannabis use of 15-year olds. According to the HBSC report, Switzerland comes second in the list of European countries when it comes to how many 15-year-olds have tried cannabis at least once. And figures from Switzerland’s anti-addiction organization, Sucht Schweiz, show that 27% of boys and 17% of girls claimed to have used cannabis at least once in their life and that 13% of boys and 9% of girls said that they used it regularly.

But evidence suggests that the real numbers are a lot higher than it was assumed up to this point. Another much more recent study by the University of Zurich tested 20-year olds on their cannabis consumption through hair analysis. Urs Rohr, an area manager at the City of Zurich’s department for addiction prevention told me in an interview that he and other experts were shocked by the results: 62% of the young men and 50% of the young women had consumed cannabis in their life – which is more than double the figures given in the Sucht Schweiz survey on 20 year olds where only 28% of men and 17% of women claimed to have consumed cannabis in their life. The difference between the two shows that not everyone is really honest about their own consumption.

Wendy agrees: the number of students that consume cannabis is actually much higher than one would think. But how do they all even get the drug? “It’s very easy to get weed. There are students who order larger amounts and resell them. Nobody really knows where the stuff actually comes from.” Rohr confirms that the black market for weed and other substances is huge and uncontrollable.

“You can’t prevent teenagers from smoking weed”, says Wendy. Or as Rohr, puts it: “Stopping drugs is a utopia. But their use should be better regulated.”

The HBSC survey shows that boys consume more cannabis than girls. Why might that be the case?  Rohr says that it is probably because boys are usually more daring, like to test their limits and feel like they are strong enough to take it.

On average, as reported by the HBSC, people start consuming cannabis, as well as other addictive substances, at the age of 16. According to Rohr, school students start at an even younger age: at 14 or 15. That’s typically the period where teenagers become curious about, for instance, alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. They want to try the illegal stuff and experience being “high” for the first time; they want to have fun.

Those first reasons are usually “rather harmless,” says Rohr. However, it becomes dangerous when young people, for example, smoke weed to tune out their problems: stress, anxiety and conflicts, but also academic and social problems. “After smoking a joint, life just seems half as bad,” says Rohr. They can relax and have fun. So, teenagers keep on smoking another one and another one. After all, “what’s one more joint?” But that is exactly how an addiction can develop.

Additionally, if people get used to smoking away their problems instead of solving them, those problems simply build up over time, says Rohr – and so does the amount of money they spend on drugs.

In Wendy’s opinion, drug addiction is also closely linked to mental health issues, which tend to be underestimated and misunderstood. She says that society should rather raise awareness of those issues instead of just blaming “today’s youth” for not caring about their health.

“If nobody smoked weed, nobody would be really interested in doing it. It would look weird,” says Wendy. Conversely, because so many students do it, it has become rather normal to at least have done it once. Teenagers usually want to belong to a group and – ironically – weed brings people together. Wendy is convinced that smoking weed helped to improve her social life: she met new people who get together to have fun.

Most teenagers don’t fully realize the risk of addiction. “’I can stop if I want to.‘, ‚I can control myself.‘ That is what most people think”, says Wendy. A habit that seems manageable can, however, very quickly get out of hand. “Being high at the wrong moment or feeling sick is not fun. Many people learn from their experiences. However, there are some that, after a long-term use, somehow become immune to the effect, so they need more substance to get high. As a consequence, they consume even more. Most of the time, they don’t even notice they’re addicted.”

Cannabis consumption can lead to an addiction, but doesn’t necessarily have to. Zurich’s department for addiction prevention confirms that only about 10% of Switzerland’s cannabis users actually become addicted. They have even listed “Safer Use Rules” for cannabis. If one doesn’t consume too much at a time, only consumes cannabis from a reliable source (compared to others that add other dangerous substances) and only consumes it once every few weeks, addiction can be avoided and the “good” aspects of this drug, like the fun and the social part, can be enjoyed. But obviously, in order to achieve that safer use, education on the properties of cannabis is needed.

The deputy director Patrick Muff of the Realgymnasium school concludes: “I don’t think that as a school we can prevent students from doing drugs with laws and punishments. The parents can’t do that either. As a school we can only address the topic and raise awareness about the advantages, the disadvantages and the risks of cannabis. Our job is to inform. As soon as people are aware, it is everyone’s own decision and responsibility.”

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