Young, middle-class New Zealanders increasingly view “weed” as the safest option when it comes to recreational drugs. Compared to tobacco and alcohol, they argue, it’s pretty much harmless. In fact, the science is far from settled on the health impacts of casual or regular cannabis use. Sarah Catherall investigates.
Each night, James fills his bong with cannabis and inhales. It’s a daily habit he’s had since he was about 15, when he began smoking cannabis to help him sleep. The lanky teen was just 13 when he took his first toke of a joint, offered by a friend. “I think 13 was definitely too young,” he says, shifting awkwardly on his feet. “I feel like if I hadn’t been so into it, I could have done better at school. In Year 11 and 12 particularly, I’d get pretty stoned.
“For my whole childhood, until I tried pot, I just couldn’t sleep at night. I was so restless and my mind wouldn’t stop going. I had mates who gave me pot, then I realised I could fall asleep and not wake up till morning.”
James lives in a renovated bungalow in Wellington’s southern suburbs with his parents and a younger sister. He spends about $140 a week on his cannabis habit; his parents allow him to smoke at home, even though it is currently illegal (he also chills out by listening to audio books). The teen rarely touches alcohol, however. He says he has friends who are binge drinkers and can turn violent. “They end up beating each other up when they get drunk. In my opinion, if they sat around and had a joint they’d be cracking up [with laughter] instead. Some of them drink and smoke together, and then get zombified and pass out.”
Once, he accidentally smoked a synthetic cannabis joint. “A guy just dropped this joint on the ground and I picked it up. All I could think about was flying rats. I’d not do that again deliberately.”
James is one of the 12% of New Zealanders who regularly use marijuana. And while most young people don’t partake habitually, their largely positive attitudes to “weed” are out of step with increasingly conservative attitudes to other risky behaviours, such as drinking, smoking and having sex. Ministry of Health research shows alcohol consumption among 15- to 24-year-olds has dropped dramatically since 2006. That same year, 23.4% of this age group were smokers; now it’s 15.4%. And although we don’t have comparable statistics here, sexual activity in the US among those in their early 20s is declining – in fact, they’re two-and-a-half times more likely to be abstinent than their Gen-X parents were at the same age.
What this group is doing more of, however, is smoking weed. Rising concern among parents that their teens are treating marijuana as comparatively benign are backed up by the 2017-18 New Zealand Health Survey, which showed almost a quarter of 15- to 24-year-olds smoked cannabis in that 12-month period – a big increase from five years earlier, when 14.9% used the drug.
Ella*, a Year 13 student, describes the views of her peers at her mid-high decile, co-ed high school in Auckland. “In terms of what’s bad for you, there’s a sort of a priority ranking – cigarettes are probably [considered] worse than alcohol; weed is all good. You get the vibe that weed is not a big deal, it’s just something fun you do. We know it’s not that great when you’re under 18 and still developing. But we know alcohol is a lot worse.”
Ella says pot smokers fall into two categories: those who casually puff a joint passed around at a party, and heavier users who will buy their own supply. “It’s only a problem when someone is relying on it and starting to have it all the time. Once they get into that stoner clique, it’s like that’s all they want to do.”
* Not their real names
Since 2012, 11 American states have legalised cannabis, while 33 allow medical marijuana; Canada has permitted both recreational and medical marijuana since October 2018. Here, the government passed a law last December that will make medical marijuana widely available for thousands of patients – though most are still waiting for a new set of regulations, licensing rules and quality standards to be put in place. Coming into force in the first quarter of next year, the new rules will also allow for the local manufacturing of medical marijuana products. But as weed’s medicinal use gets the tick from legal and health-science sources, it boosts social acceptance of the drug in all its forms. A recreational joint and a medical-marijuana product might be derived from the same plant, but they are starkly different. The former, designed to get you high, or stoned, will contain high levels of the cannabinoid THC. Medicinal marijuana, which many consider a remedy for pain, anxiety, inflammation and other ailments, usually relies on the cannabinoid CBD, which has no psychoactive effect. (CBD and THC have the same chemical formula but their atoms are arranged differently; there are many other cannabinoids in the plant. “Hemp” is used to describe a non-intoxicating strain of the Cannabis sativa plant, which is harvested for industrial use to make products such as textiles, paper, biofuel and animal feed.)
In January, the New Yorker posed the question, “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?”, in an article by Malcolm Gladwell that argued we don’t know enough about the social and health harms of the drug. Gladwell quoted from a 468-page report by the National Academy of Medicine, which, he wrote, “stated, over and over again, that a drug North Americans have become enthusiastic about remains a mystery”.
The big concern is the harm cannabis can cause to young, developing brains. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February, a US-UK meta-analysis of 11 international studies, involving more than 23,000 people aged 18 to 32, found smoking weed before 18 is linked to an increased risk of depression and suicide in young adulthood. (It remains unclear, however, whether this is because depressed and suicidal young people are more likely to use marijuana in the first place.)
In New Zealand, those in the 15-24 age group are the most likely to use cannabis. In the Ministry of Health’s 2012-2013 cannabis-use health survey, one in 10 users aged 15-24 reported a harmful effect on their mental health in the previous 12 months.
THC levels are far stronger than they were when joints glowed at hippie festivals and house parties in the 1970s. Based on US drug hauls, the average THC content of seized cannabis products virtually tripled from approximately 4% in 1995 to around 12% in 2014. THC levels higher than 10% can threaten mental health, according to Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a neuropharmacologist at Auckland University. In an unregulated, black market, he says, “the THC has got higher and the CBD has been bred out of the plant. However, it’s the CBD that is protective to the brain.”
This is the side of cannabis use that alarms mental health experts. The Cabinet paper on the 2020 Cannabis Referendum, released to the public with parts redacted, states the goals of legalisation: to reduce problematic usage; delay use until 20; displace gangs and criminal sellers; and to fund mental health and education services. It says the only way to control the potency and types of cannabis products is through full regulation – decriminalisation won’t go far enough, as untested weed will still be controlled by criminal elements.
James is not sure how he will vote. “All week, I’ve been thinking about it, eh? Because I knew you were coming over, and I don’t know where I sit on it,” he says, ending his sentence with a nervous laugh. “I like knowing my weed comes from a bit of bush in the Ureweras, rather than a big factory in Mt Wellington.”
He likes the idea of cannabis being decriminalised, but fears a legal market will lead to more underage teens lighting up. “If there’s a pot shop with a sign on it, kids will know that’s where to go. The kids who are 13 to 16, there’ll be a ballsy one who will go down and wait outside the shop and ask a buyer to get some for them. But that’s the age when you’re ruining your frontal lobe.”
His mother sips her glass of sauvignon blanc. She’s in her early 50s, and has two brothers who were formerly long-term pot smokers. “I think [cannabis] is very demotivating. People my age who smoke regularly are just a bit… duh.”
She’d like to see the drug legalised, however, so money can be spent on education and drug counselling. “Alcohol is legal and acceptable. But I know people whose kids are getting drunk and doing terrible things. I’m open about my son smoking pot. But I’ve never been able to say, ‘I think it’s better my kid does this than drinks alcohol.’ Some people raise their eyebrows. I don’t think that’s fair.”
Today, Boden’s home is Christchurch. The University of Otago associate professor and deputy director of the Christchurch Health and Development Study oversees one of the most comprehensive sets of data on long-term cannabis use in the world. It has followed 1000 people born in the mid-70s to the age of 40, tracking cannabis users over 25 years, including those who have been using cannabis from adolescence.
Boden says the key finding has been mainly around young users and regular users, who were more likely to report symptoms of psychosis. Among males, earlier and heavier use of cannabis increased the risk of suicidal thoughts. One question centred on disordered thinking and perception. “They would say things like, ‘I feel people can read my thoughts sometimes.’ Those who started using cannabis at a younger age more often reported those kinds of disordered thoughts.”
According to the Cabinet paper on cannabis: “Regular use of cannabis increases the risks of developing depression, psychosis and schizophrenia. Use can be particularly harmful for people under 25 as the brain is still developing. Additionally, consuming cannabis by smoking can increase the risk of developing breathing issues, lung damage and some cancers, and second-hand smoke could have detrimental impacts on others. There is also a high risk of dependence among those who regularly use, including a one in six chance of young people developing dependence.”
Boden says the developing brain of a cannabis user under 18 is particularly sensitive to the bombardment of cannabinoids. These impact on dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter affecting mood, sleep, memory, learning, concentration and motor control in the brain. “The exposure to THC in immature brains causes those dopamine receptors to operate differently. They slow down in their uptake of dopamine. For adolescents, THC harms the dopamine receptors and that increases the risk of psychotic illness.”
In a New Zealand Medical Journal editorial in January, Boden wrote that cannabis legalisation should proceed with caution. “Cannabis use is associated with educational delay; welfare dependence; increased risks of psychotic symptoms; major depression; increased risks of motor vehicle accidents; increased risks of tobacco use; increased risks of other illicit drug use; and respiratory impairment. These effects were most evident for young users [under 18] and, in particular, heavier users of cannabis, and could not be explained by social, demographic and contextual factors associated with cannabis use.”
Boden cautiously backs legalisation for recreational use, believing a licensed scheme would help regulate THC levels and control what’s on the market. Weighing up the potential of both cannabis and alcohol to cause harm, he is more worried about teens developing a regular booze habit.
“If a young person drinks weekly before the age of 18, they triple their risk of developing an alcohol disorder in adulthood.”
She knows people with mental health problems, some of whom have used cannabis, and wants to see money spent on mental health services and public education programmes. “The public has been in favour of cannabis law reform for over a decade, and politicians have essentially sat on their hands. I can understand why politicians haven’t wanted to touch it with a bargepole because of the nuance and complexity of unpacking something that is deeply entrenched in moral panic. There are valid concerns when it comes to the use of cannabis.”
Swarbrick has looked to overseas jurisdictions for insights. In Colorado, licensed suppliers have to keep purchase patterns, which show 70% of cannabis products are sold to 30% of consumers. “That means a group of consumers are consuming at an incredibly high rate. That for me would be the argument for a public health approach, where you have an intervention. There would be a duty of care on people selling this product in the same way there’s a duty on bartenders not to serve intoxicated patrons.”
While advising that all these details are yet to be negotiated – a cross-party group will develop a proposed law by the end of the year – Swarbrick says there may be a requirement on licensed sellers to ask questions around mental health.
How about critics who fear licensed pot shops dotted through suburbs, the smell of weed on the streets? “That wouldn’t be allowed here. I don’t want cannabis to be liberalised or normalised. This is the stuff we’re working through with key stakeholders. I’m going around the country to talk with people. But I personally believe in local autonomy, in deciding where [licensed retailers] should go.”
Professor Sally Casswell, one of the country’s leading experts on the social harms of alcohol, is concerned. “At this stage, there is no detail about these [outlets]. Will they be cannabis-only retail stores? How many per head of population will there be? Who will set trading hours? What authority will give and review licences? Will there be any local-level involvement in licensing?”
Casswell, who’s the director of Massey University’s Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (Shore) group, points to our alcohol-soaked environment as a warning – a point reiterated by many others interviewed. There are lessons in how the alcohol industry has dominated the landscape, setting up numerous liquor stores in deprived areas as just one example. Young people are particularly susceptible to advertising, and Casswell is worried about marijuana feeds on Instagram and Snapchat. There is currently no ban. “The commercial platforms of Facebook, Instagram and others are being used by commercial interests to target and promote the normalisation of heavy drinking – this will also happen with cannabis.”
On a wintry afternoon at the Beehive, Justice Minister Andrew Little puts forward the arguments for legalising our most commonly used illicit drug. New Zealand prohibited cannabis in 1965. More than five decades later, we have 250,000 regular cannabis users, and thousands more who occasionally smoke it. “Cannabis is now driven by criminal elements,” he says. “Our young people don’t know what they are getting access to.”
Little has an 18-year-old son, so he also talks as a parent. “[My son] will tell me what [drugs are] available for his age group, whether at school or not. He says, ‘Dad, you wouldn’t believe it.’ The current regime means we don’t know what’s out there. Young people are also getting their hands on synthetic cannabis.”
One of the objectives of any legalisation regime is to delay first use by young people. “I’ve had letters from parents saying it has triggered depression [in their children],” says Little. “Psychiatrists say that, too. Which is why you want to spell out those risks and delay onset. Medical science would tell you it should be age 25 to protect brain development. But if we set it at that level, we know someone will give it a go. It has to be set at an age that reflects behavioural norms.”
In Canada, legalisation hasn’t sent the black market up in smoke; that’s where about 38% of users still get their supply, partly because it’s cheaper. Little wants the cross-party group to look at this and a raft of other issues before drafting a proposed law by the end of the year, including the ideal price to eradicate the black market, THC levels, the location of cannabis shops, and rules for licensed contractors. Keen for a public debate, he says: “Even the pro-cannabis lobby has to admit this is not a risk-free drug. The objective of the public debate is to be very clear about the risks. What are the best ways to deal with the risks? There’s the way we currently run it, through prohibition, or we could have a legalised market.”
National’s Paula Bennett is more supportive of decriminalisation, rather than legalisation, arguing there’s strong evidence cannabis can cause mental health issues, especially among youth. “I think there’s huge confusion among the public about medicinal cannabis, decriminalisation and legalisation. It’s a shame we have the referendum so soon, rather than waiting for another three years, to see if we can learn from overseas experience,” she says. “I worry young people would think legalisation means normalisation and justifies using cannabis.”
No one else smoking the joint was affected in the same way. Anna won’t touch cannabis again because of the way it affected her, and shakes her dark-brown bob when asked if she would support legalisation in the referendum. “If it’s legalised, people will think it’s okay. You’ll walk past marijuana shops and think it’s okay to have dope. The people I know will still go to tinny houses.”
The university student drinks when she goes out, and occasionally binges. However, while her friends don’t drink during the day, unless they’re preloading for an event, those who smoke weed regularly will get high day or night. Others have the odd puff of a joint handed around at a party, but they won’t go out and buy it themselves.
North Island drug counsellor Darryl Wesley runs a programme for addicts. “A lot of people will come to me and say, ‘You must hate meth’ – and yes, it’s really bad. But I’m more concerned about cannabis. The cannabis I see does damage.”
In May, Wesley tried to get a 24-year-old cannabis user onto his addiction programme. “He was a bright kid from a good home. When he was 15, he picked up cannabis. When I saw him, he was paranoid. He completely lost it. He thought I was going to hurt him. He lasted three days on the programme. I’ve met four or five people with the same story. They’ll be somewhere between 23 and 25, and they all use cannabis.”
A trained nurse with a drug counselling diploma, Wesley first began seeing cannabis addicts in the 90s when he worked at the alcohol and drug treatment centre Odyssey House in Auckland. “A guy came to me once and said, ‘Darryl, I’m 24 and I’ve only used cannabis. If I hadn’t used cannabis, would I be schizophrenic now?’”
Wesley rejects the claim from pro-legalisation lobbyists that addicts don’t come forward because they fear being dobbed in to the police. He’s also worried about legalising what he says is “a wickedly dangerous drug”, and doesn’t believe a legalised market would control THC levels. “It’s the dumbest thing we could ever do. We’ve seen the power of the alcohol industry. Do we really want to unleash these products on New Zealand?”
In Colorado, which has one of the most liberal regimes in the US, the use of recreational marijuana was legalised in 2012, with separate legislation covering medical cannabis. According to a 2017 report, annual visits by teens to a children’s hospital emergency department quadrupled between 2005 and 2015 due to cannabis-related issues; adolescents with mental illness made up two-thirds of cases.
In a bottle store in Miramar, Wellington, boxes of RTDs (ready-to-drink alcoholic mixes) are stacked in a chiller. First sold in New Zealand from the mid-90s, these alco-pops – with alluring names like “Cruiser” – are popular at teenage parties and have fuelled the rise of binge drinking, particularly among young women. Critics of a change to the cannabis laws point to RTDs and other enticing alcoholic products as a sign of the way things could go in a legalised weed market.
In the US, roll-your-own joints have evolved into a raft of lucrative, commercial products: weed drinks, edibles, pills, vaporisers, suppositories and even lollies. The liquor brand Corona has invested in the world’s largest publicly listed marijuana company, Canopy Growth, while Heineken-owned Lagunitas recently started selling both a beer and a sparkling water made with cannabis.
Speaking from her office at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Unit, senior research scientist Beatriz Carlini talks about how state legalisation there was intended to have a public health focus. Instead, big marijuana has propelled the growth of stores with names like Uncle Ike’s selling a raft of products. Advertisements associate being stoned with freedom, adventure, excitement and sex.
Carlini has written about the rise in cannabis vaping concentrates that have THC levels as high as 50-80%. “These probably increase the risk of cannabis use disorders. You definitely smell more cannabis around Seattle, even though it is, in theory, illegal to smoke on the streets. It’s way, way, way more visible everywhere you go.”
She says usage has flattened among 14- to 18-year-olds, increased among 18- to 20-year-olds, and “taken off’’ among legal users in their early 20s. Despite public health campaigns, a Washington State Healthy Youth survey warned that in 2018, high-school students thought cannabis was less risky than they did before it was legalised. Four out of 10 Year 11 students said cannabis was easy to get. Stoned drivers are also a concern: more than half of Year 13 students who used cannabis in the previous month drove a vehicle within three hours of getting high. In Canada, though, where weed drinks and edibles are banned, recent legalisation hasn’t sparked a rise in cannabis users, who make up about 15% of the population.
Says Carlini: “If I was to say anything to New Zealand, it would be: be careful about the model of legalisation you get.”
*Not her real name
That’s what Chris Wilkins, head of the drug research team at the Shore & Whariki Research Centre at Massey University, tuned into at the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy conference in Paris in early June. He heard from US drug policy researchers talking about profit-driven legal cannabis regimes in Colorado and other US states: increasing use by youth, declining prices, high-potency products, accidental poisonings, use of unregulated pesticides, aggressive marketing, high numbers of retail outlets, and industry influence over regulation making.
Another cautious supporter of reform, Wilkins argues there are a range of options including decriminalisation, cannabis social clubs (where people grow and share their recreational crops) and not-for-profit regimes. “It doesn’t have to be a binary choice between an alcohol-style market or prohibition.”
By the time the referendum rolls around here, Auckland high-school student Ella will be at university and old enough to vote. She’s done some research on the internet to become more informed about the debate, and read that legalisation in Canada has led to lower rates of addiction and removed the allure of smoking weed as an act of youth rebellion. It’s also led to people talking more openly about issues around marijuana use, which she sees as positive.
For now, the science remains hazy as to whether it’s relatively safe for teens to have the occasional toke at a party. But Wilkins argues it’s not as benign as young people like Ella tend to think.
“It’s not easy to generalise and it depends on so many factors: a person’s mental health history and family mental health, the strength of the cannabis, and their state of mind,” he says. “Mental illness, drug dependency and poor educational outcomes related to cannabis use are associated with early age-onset of use, so it’s important to raise the age of first use. Those using it daily and near-daily, and using high-THC products, are more likely to suffer harm.”
This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more investigative journalism and opinion.