Weed. Dagga. Spliff. Dope. Cannabis. Marijuana.
These are the names of a drug that we have all probably heard of, and many, if not most, of us have had some experience of. It is a remarkably pervasive drug in South African society. Every so often, when the police make dagga-related arrests, they typically confiscate hundreds of kilograms of the drug at a time. Easily cultivated in South Africa’s warm and sunny climate, there are those who advocate the legalisation of dagga. Some people might even have an issue with the fact that I’m calling it a drug. According to them, it isn’t a drug – it’s a plant. Taking this attitude of acceptance further, they claim that the drug (which it is, and I will elaborate below on that) has medicinal properties and should be turned into an officially regulated industry, with tax revenue for the government and profits for those who find themselves in influential positions of shareholding and supply management. A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time discussing the relationship between drugs and mental illness. What I tried to emphasise in that article was the fact (yes, the fact) that such a relationship exists, and that perhaps not enough is being done to educate those at risk about this relationship. So I feel that using the example of dagga, and its relationship with psychosis and schizophrenia, is a very good place to start. Young people have a penchant for smoking dagga. What they don’t know or realise is that they may be making a long term disinvestment in their own mental health. To those who claim that there is no relationship between dagga and schizophrenia or, more bizarrely, that dagga can actually help to cure schizophrenia, I would like to point out the facts of the situation. The relationship between the drug and the disease, which has been scientifically proven through independent research studies over a period of 20 years (which is longer than many of my critics may have been alive), is probably best illustrated by a study done on 50 000 members of the Swedish army. What the study found is that those who used dagga heavily at around age 18 were 600% more likely to develop schizophrenia during the next 15 years. Now, even if your maths isn’t very good, 50 000 and 600% are very difficult statistics to ignore. Across the board, the research indicates that using dagga in your teen years exposes you to a serious risk of developing schizophrenia. This is an inescapable conclusion of the studies that have been conducted. Experts estimate that 8-13% of all schizophrenia cases are related to dagga use during the teenage years. The younger you are when you start smoking dagga, the higher the risk, since your brain is still developing until the age of 21, and a developing brain is particularly susceptible to influence and even damage by alcohol and drugs. Just a plant? I don’t think so. Of course, when talking about schizophrenia one should never try to downplay the effect of the genetic predisposition that some people are believed to have towards the disease. But even so, what the research unequivocally demonstrates is that those with a genetic predisposition are more likely, as much as ten times more likely, to develop schizophrenia as a result of dagga use. So, while you can’t reliably determine if you have any such a predisposition, isn’t it a little risky to tempt fate by using a drug, which it is, that you do not have any physical need for whatsoever? One thing that emerged during our previous discussion of drugs and mental illness was the way in which drug addiction and drug-induced mental illness can create a confusing overlap of symptoms in addicts, making treatment more difficult. The real tragedy of the situation is that addicts may mistakenly believe that they are self-medicating their drug-induced condition, when they are only aggravating it. This is why I have tried to emphasise the causative relationship that so obviously exists between the drug and the disease. What we need is more education. Armed with the right information, you can make yourself safe, and at the same time set an example for your friends of healthy living. It might not be the easiest thing to do, but next time someone offers you a joint, say no. Can you really afford to do otherwise?
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