Hashing it out:
Reasons for cannabis use

If cannabis is impacting on your relationship, you might choose to talk to your friend or loved one about their use. But what do you do when they tell you: 'it's ok, it's natural'? This quick read helps you prepare for your cannabis conversation. 

If you are in a relationship or are friends with someone who uses weed, you might feel cannabis is starting to impact on your relationship. You might be concerned about how much or how often they use; the effects it’s having on their health, mind or personality; or the life choices they make when they use (do they stay at home all the time? Is too much of their money going to weed?). It can feel like you are third wheeling to weed.

So, you think it’s time to talk.

Before you start planning the logistics of your talk –time, location – it’s a good idea to think about the types of arguments for using cannabis they might draw on, so you can discuss them from an informed perspective. There are some common arguments people use to justify their use.

“Weed is natural, so it must be good for you!”

Here is a list of natural things: cotton, spiders, coriander, vitamin D, daffodils, platinum, cork, tobacco, asbestos, strawberries, yeast, and Tom Cruise.     

Some of these things are better for you than others.

There are some people who believe that naturally occurring products are better for you than synthetic ones.  But while humans evolved in nature, not everything in nature is good for us to ingest (see: asbestos, daffodils).

Some things that are good for us are only good in small doses: iron is good for you in small doses, but large doses can lead to stomach pain, nausea and vomiting, and with repeated use, much more serious outcomes.

So, some natural things are good for you – but others are very bad for you. Some things that are natural are good for you, but only in small doses. You have to judge each substance on its own merits (and by its effects!) to know how dangerous it can be.

Speaking of which:

“It’s not as bad as alcohol and tobacco, and they’re legal.”

Something being legal does not necessarily mean it is safe – it can be a choice a Government makes in order to do the greater good or because of historical popular public demand.

Alcohol is a good example – it is legal not because it isn’t bad for you (it is), but because it is extremely difficult to make it illegal given the high proportion of the population who use it, mostly in small doses. During the 1920s, the United States did try to make alcohol an illegal drug during a period called Prohibition - this lasted 13 years before the law was reversed.

One of the key reasons it failed was because of the simple chemistry of alcohol – only sugar and yeast are required, and both are very easy to find. Alcohol can be made from anything from potatoes to fruit juice – so if you ban alcohol, you have to ban pretty much the whole fresh food aisle at Woolies as well.

If people can’t buy it, but the ingredients are easy to get, they will try to make their own.

Under prohibition alcohol was still sold (illegally, of course – there’s a reason the 1920s was the golden age of gangsters), and drinking levels only dropped about 20%. From a public health perspective, the consequences were actually worse – there was an increase in crime, and alcohol made poorly accidently produced toxic methanol.

If this sounds familiar, these are often the same circumstances and problems seen for ecstasy and other illegal drugs. The difference is they are much harder to make than alcohol, and the ingredients are far easier to restrict. Right now, from a cost benefit perspective, it works for them to remain illegal. 

It was partly the failings of prohibition that has made governments cautious about making tobacco illegal – by the time it was realised what a negative effect on health it had, a very large percentage of the population smoked. This would make it very difficult to restrict, as people would try and seek it out through other means (although tobacco companies were not exactly thrilled at the idea either, and paid a lot to make sure no one tried to outlaw it!). Instead anti-smoking campaigns, high taxation, and laws like plain packaging were introduced to try and persuade people not to use (in a way making it ‘socially’ policed).

So cannabis remains illegal (like ecstasy, heroin, and a number of other chemicals) and alcohol and tobacco legal, not necessarily because of the safety of the drug, but how easy it is to enforce its prohibition. 

 “No one ever died from weed.”

Here’s a question: has anyone ever died from sugar?

The answer you give would depend on what limits you set. If you want only deaths that can be linked directly to eating sugar (and nothing else), the answer might actually be no. Of course, we know that’s not the case – obesity and heart disease are linked to sugar in a quite significant way!

This is the same logic that is used for weed. When this statement is made, it ignores indirect deaths such as car accidents (one French study of road crashes found 3% of fatalities were attributable to cannabis) or long-term possible health consequences such cancer or stroke. It also ignores deaths from accidents and misadventure.

Like sugar, cannabis is not known as a substance people fatally overdose on: but that doesn’t mean it has no consequences for use. There are many social, emotional and physical harms that are linked to cannabis use that might not kill you from a toxic overdose – but they certainly won’t make your life better or longer.

“I’ve used it for ages and I’m fine, or people I know who use it are fine.”

This is what is known in logic as an anecdotal fallacy – taking only what you’ve experienced as evidence. This is a problem because you will only have experienced a small window of what could occur - and you also have to rely on your own recollection. For instance, you might be biased to see only what you want to see. Your cousin, Niko, might have smoked for ages and is fine… apart from that hacking couch and terrible sleep patterns. This can also be referred to as cherry picking (or only remembering or saying the parts you want to remember!)

This is why people often rely on research to find a balanced answer, as it will look at a large sample of the population and compare outcomes overall, rather than look at just one or two people.

It is important to consider research because cannabis affects everyone differently; some people experience very few negative effects, others might have significant physical and mental effects. This can be due to family history, environment, or even some unknown interactions.

I need it to…

Sometimes, people may feel they need to use cannabis for a particular reason. It might be to concentrate, to relax, to feel ‘normal’. This is concerning because the need to use in order to properly function can be a sign of dependence or addiction. Cannabis was once thought to not be a drug of addiction like alcohol and heroin were – research now shows that while it is not as  addictive as these two drugs, it can be both physically and psychologically addictive.

Alternatively, they might say they use it for something like anxiety or pain, referring to research showing it has been used for such medical reasons. However, the pharmaceutical preparations and the plants available to the public are very different – in some instances the chemicals with all the effects are only found in tiny quantities in the plant, and need to be extracted for more effective use in pharmaceutical preparations. Even if you get lucky with the right strain, there’s no guarantee the next batch will have the same result or even the same composition. It’s unlikely then that it will be very effective as a medicine, compared to something you could get from a doctor.

What can I do?

  • Talk! And when we say talk, we actually mean listen. Talking to someone about their drug use can be really confronting for them, so it’s important you approach it carefully, patiently, with a plan and an aim to listen. During the conversation, the two most important things to remember are not to judge and not to set ultimatums - this can cause your friend or partner to close off and not want to talk to you about this, or even other issues, again.
  • Instead, ask them questions about why they use, how they feel about their use, and if they think it has any negative effects on them, if those effects outweigh the positives – just be careful not to turn it into an interrogation.
  • Another good idea is to tell them how their use is making you feel – focus on your concern about them, how you think cannabis has affected your relationship. If you feel you can be really honest, tell them how it’s affecting how you feel, for example, you miss having someone you can rely on and talk to, or that you feel you are being put second to their use.