Cannabis: how high are the risks?

Cannabis use remains widespread among students but how much are we risking and is it worth it?

Statistics from the Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales (2015/2016) suggest that drug use is decreasing but the use of cannabis is still high among young people, including those studying at university.

Website DrugWise reported that “as in previous years, cannabis was the most commonly used drug, with 6.5% of adults aged 16 to 59 having used it in the last year (around 2.1 million people).

“Among younger adults aged 16 to 24, cannabis was also the most commonly used drug, with 15.8% having used it in the last year (around 975,000 young adults).”

The proportion of students who are cannabis smokers is still notably (for want of a better word) high. So are we putting ourselves at risk?

According to FRANK, a national drug education service, the risks of cannabis usage include feelings of anxiety, suspicion, panic and paranoia. For people with illnesses such as schizophrenia, cannabis can cause a serious relapse. Cannabis can affect the way the brain works. Regular, heavy use makes it difficult to learn and concentrate.

You may be risking more than your marks. The UEL Residential Services Handbook states: “The university will not tolerate the use of illegal substances or drugs. Residents who are either suspected of using or are found taking drugs in the halls will be dismissed from the Residences and reported to the Disciplinary Manager, where further disciplinary action may be taken. The police may also be informed. You will not be eligible for university accommodation in future years.”

This means that, if caught, a student runs the risk of disruption to their studies whilst trying to find new accommodation, or potentially missing out on the academic year altogether.

I interviewed three students at the University of East London with different views on the use of cannabis.

Emily, 22, a student in her third year said: “I think it is just an unnecessary recreational drug. The culture of it at uni and around uni is so high, I feel like I can’t get away from it. I see people smoking before classes and while they are trying to study or write up essays and I don’t understand how they can function properly. I’m also aware of the amount of people using the university’s welfare services for their mental health problems and I’m sure that the amount of weed that people are smoking must contribute to that problem.

“It’s also another expense that students can’t really afford. It costs about a tenner for a gram, and that can last you a week if you don’t smoke much. But still, I think it’s a stupid, added on expense to the already difficult strain on a student’s finance.

“I used to smoke it, but it made me feel horrible after a while. I’d feel tired all the time and started suffering badly with nightmares, which meant getting up in the morning was hard. It made me feel lazy, I put on weight because I was eating more from getting the munchies. I honestly just don’t see how a student can achieve their best if they are always smoking weed.”

Whereas Lauren, 21, also in her final year, believes “it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s not something I use to cope. It’s not something I think hinders my learning, or encourages my learning. It’s down to the person: some students can happily indulge in smoking marijuana with no negative consequences. However, it’s important to remember that it does affect some people in a negative way.

“If you do make the decision to smoke while you’re studying, you hold a greater responsibility over yourself. Lots of students do smoke, though, but in different amounts and at more or less frequent times, and so you can’t brand a student who smokes a spliff once a month as a ‘lazy, full time smoker’ – they might just be doing it at uni to de-stress. But then you do get people who smoke every day and don’t see it as a problem.

Zac, a 24-year-old second year student said: “I personally think that cannabis isn’t for everyone. For me, myself, I’ve been smoking it for roughly about 10 years now and I’ve gone through the stages of seeing the benefits and the disadvantages.

“But overall I would say that you need to be in the right time, place and frame of mind, and when you’re a student you are so often in the wrong place. So maybe for students it’s not the wisest choice, but if people are wanting to smoke responsibly, it’s their choice.

“I’m not worried about being caught, not in the slightest. It would only be if I were out being a nuisance. I’d say you have to stay respectful and people will respect whatever you choose to do.

A senior lecturer declared that “as a tutor, the thing I would worry about is students smoking it before coming into class. I think that would be a very bad idea. Students need to be mindful of how often they are using it and the strength of it. I think ninety per cent  of what’s available on the streets of London is called ‘skunk’ which is really far too strong.

“Not being an expert, but speaking from knowing what experts have said, skunk can act as a trigger to certain mental health conditions. And students should certainly think very carefully before they risk being chucked out of their accommodation.”

Whatever your stance on the use of cannabis, it is important to remember that it is still a criminal offence to be in possession of the Class B drug; or to give it away, or sell it.

If a student is caught with cannabis by the police it can result in their arrest, a formal caution, a penalty notice or a possible conviction, and the impact on the student’s studies could be severe. While the legalisation debate is ongoing, we are forced to consider whether it is really worth the risk.