Local doctors and psychologists are seeing signs of primary school children using marijuana.
Even more alarming, they claim younger children are also using the drug.
Experts shared the startling information with Sunday Newsday which sought responses to the Children’s Authority concerns, raised in a press conference last Monday, about the exposure of children to marijuana with the decriminalisation of the drug. The authority warned parents and guardians of the dangers of smoking the drug in the presence of children at home.
Addressing the issue, Dr Maia Blackman said there had been an increase in cases of drug addiction in minors over the last few years.
Marijuana and alcohol are the two most commonly-used drugs among TT’s children, but there are also children addicted to codeine and cocaine.
“In keeping with figures published by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teenage marijuana use is at the highest level of the past 30 years. Many are more likely to experiment with marijuana than tobacco. This can be concerning because the THC levels have increased in today’s plants through scientific agricultural practices. The CBD, where the medical benefits come from, remains around one per cent,” Blackman said.
Put very simply, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are two of the most well-known cannabinoids of marijuana. THC can produce a “high” feeling, and CBD has medical benefits without the high.
Nidhi Kirpalani, a clinical and counselling psychologist, said those who start very young are sometimes exposed to drug use by family or friends. She said children learn how to view the consequences or benefits of behaviours from what they observe in their environment.
Children may feel it’s okay to smoke
Therefore, if they see someone smoking and that person seems happy, relaxed, and is fitting in with others, the child may learn that smoking is good.
“So we have many different cultures in Trinidad. It’s never clear cut. For younger children, it’s usually a home environment incidence. Whether they observe the adults and try it out in secret or openly... I’ve had a child as young as two show me exactly what to do with a ‘spliff.’ It was quite accurate, and the child naturally would have learnt that from family. There was known marijuana use in the family/friend circle.”
She said the girl showed her how she would roll, light and inhale a marijuana cigarette. Fortunately, the child was not a habitual user, so no effects were observed. Kirpalani said the child’s parents were dismissive of the issue. They thought it was “cute,” that the girl did not take a “real pull,” and that she did not understand what the parents were doing.
Another culture, said Kirpalani, was that of teens succumbing to peer pressure because of a need for social identity.
“That development stage is all about discovering, belonging, fitting in, and finding themselves – Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where do I belong?”
These children often get marijuana at home, in the neighbourhood, or even at their secondary schools.
As with adults, the need for social identity and acceptance can grow to escapism. She said using may make the child feel good, appreciated, and like they fit in. They may also feel a “physiological and cognitive distance” from their negative experiences.
She added that in drug communities, children are recruited to sell drugs in their schools and are also given packets of the drugs to ingest.
“Whether through social pressure to be seen as a part of the group or by willingness to identify with them, this can provide a sense of community, a sense of belonging, also protection in high-risk areas.”
Children smoke for attention
There are also children who lack supervision, are seeking attention, and have access to drugs, including alcohol and marijuana. Because there is no proper supervision, their behaviour will go unnoticed until it becomes severe.
Kirpalani stressed that the human brain does not fully develop until ages 21 to 25.
She said the physiological and chemical change in the body when people ingest drugs and alcohol will alter the development of a child’s brain. And long-term and high amounts of drug/alcohol use will alter brain functionality and growth.
She said it affects the learning capability of those who are addicted, are consuming regularly, or ingest large portions. She said they might have difficulty focussing on tasks, completing homework, have memory loss or other learning difficulties.
Regular use can also affect their emotions. People can experience mood changes or difficulty coping with emotions when sober, especially with anger and depression, and they can become withdrawn or aggressive.
It can also affect decision-making skills, mostly because of intoxication.
“Remember that alcohol and drug use often lowers our inhibitions, so sexual behaviour or other behaviours that the sober child may usually say no to, they may engage in it.”
Sunday Newsday e-mailed questions to the National Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention Programme, which is under the Health Ministry, but did not receive any replies.
The good, the bad about ganja
Blackman said addicts, especially youths, are more likely to get themselves in harmful positions to access the drug.
They may run away from where they are supposed to be to get it or use the money for food to buy drugs. Some, she said, will lack motivation with no interest in anything.
“With marijuana, the effects that you really can’t measure will be things that have been supported by studies, for example, a reduction of IQ. You can’t say if they did not use their IQ would be 20 points higher, but there is evidence to support it.”
She said that some people say marijuana helps them to study. However, she said, those people may have anxious personalities and marijuana makes them feel calm enough to study. However, they will not retain as much as if they study while sober.
She added that during withdrawal, some addicts might become aggressive while others might be their usual selves. However, when chronic users, or those with high enough amounts of marijuana in their system, stop taking marijuana, there can be physical reactions like seizures. All reactions depend on the person’s emotional, chemical and physical make-up.
“There has only been international research in adults. You are never going to get ethical approval to expose children to drugs and see what happens. But now it has been decriminalised we have the option to study it and we have to see who in TT would be the first set of people to put in research requests.”
When it comes to medical benefits of marijuana, Blackman said they are mostly from CBD. She said several drugs are coming out of Jamaica to treat a number of conditions, including asthma and seizures.
She said there are CBD vaginal and rectal inserts, oils, teas, sublingual tablets, lotions, vape cartridges, bath salts, and other methods, although most are not available in TT. She reminded people that anything home-made from the plant, whether teas or edibles, will have both THC and CBD.
For children, she recommended an oil, a CBD edible or a capsule because other methods have not been studied enough for any conclusive recommendation. Whatever the medication, she said, a doctor will not recommend a cigarette, which is how most local children become addicted to marijuana.
Smoking is bad for your health
She stressed that smoking is a bad idea for everyone. She said burning and inhaling anything damage fragile cells in the lungs, and children are even more susceptible. She said the second-hand smoke could trigger an asthma attack in an asthmatic child. If the child has a propensity for respiratory disease, it will increase the likelihood to a definite.
She said cigarettes have filters, so the hope is that the person smoking is exposed to less carcinogens (any substance that promotes the formation of cancer). However, when building a marijuana cigarette (spliff or joint), no one builds in a filter so the person smoking it and the person, or in this case a child, exposed to the smoke will be affected similarly.
“The reason people say second-hand smoke is worse is because the person who is smoking is making a conscious decision to do themselves harm. It’s like being involved in a gang and getting shot, versus being an innocent bystander. It’s not that you’re exposed to more toxins. It’s worse because it’s not something you’ve chosen to do. Adults are allowed to kill themselves, however, they want.”
Despite that, she said, she would prefer to be exposed to marijuana smoke than cigarettes. She said cigarettes are known to have about 300 different poisons and, while research is inconclusive about the harm of using marijuana, at least it definitely has benefits.
“Yes, it is okay to smoke marijuana now because a certain amount is legal but ideally, from a medical standpoint, we don’t want you smoking anything. Even if it’s the cure for Aids, don’t smoke it. Take it some other way.”