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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6777

Senator FERRIS (6:58 PM) —Cannabis, grass, weed, pot, hooch, dope and hemp are all very popular names for marijuana. Back in the sixties, cannabis was considered almost part of the youth culture, but the scientific and medical community are increasingly challenging the soft status of marijuana in Australia. The question now being asked is whether marijuana is still the soft drug it was considered to be and whether the distinction in title between soft and hard drugs is appropriate now, given current medical and scientific studies. In fact, a picture of cannabis is now clearly emerging that is far more disturbing.

So what do we know about this widely accepted and so-called soft drug? We know that cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in Australia. More than two million Australians have used it in the previous 12 months, with an additional three million having used it at some point in their lives. The 2001 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that one in three Australians aged 14 years or older have used cannabis at some point. More than one-third of teenagers have used marijuana in their lifetime. Almost three in five Australians aged between 20 and 29 have admitted to using the drug during their lifetime.

We also know that when cannabis is smoked it is twice as carcinogenic as tobacco. A recently released research paper from the British Lung Foundation, appropriately called A smoking gun, shows that a cannabis cigarette can contain concentrations of carcinogens that are up to 50 per cent higher than in a tobacco cigarette. The paper also found that a cannabis cigarette deposits four times as much on the respiratory tract as an unfiltered cigarette of the same weight. The paper concluded that the cannabis smoked today is much more potent than that smoked in the sixties—for example, the researchers found that the average cannabis cigarette smoked in the 1960s contained 10 milligrams of THC, the ingredient which accounts for the psychoactive properties of cannabis, compared with 150 milligrams of THC today. As well, clinicians quoted in the Financial Review in October this year have speculated that the increase in the THC content has led to the emergence of cannabis induced psychosis. The British paper also concluded that cannabis has a significant negative impact on respiratory health. The researchers found growing evidence linking the smoking of cannabis to serious lung problems, that three to four cannabis cigarettes a day does the some bronchial damage as 20 or more tobacco cigarettes a day and that the main effects of cannabis smoking on the lungs are increased risk of pulmonary infections and, most importantly, respiratory cancers.

There is increasing evidence that marijuana contributes significantly to depression and motivational problems. Psychotherapist Ken Huth works with street youth, mainly those with drug problems, and talks of a spiral of depression and the removal of all motivation after prolonged use of marijuana. A seven-year study of 2,000 youths conducted by the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne found that cannabis can be bad for the mental health of young people who had previously not been depressed. However, there is still a lot that we do not know. Although it is still not proven, there is increasing evidence that cannabis causes impairment of brain function and leads to psychosis. Mental health and drug and alcohol workers are reporting an alarming increase in the amount of cannabis induced psychosis and schizophrenia, particularly in young adults and youths. But cause and effect are still very hard to establish.

A senior lecturer from the Australian National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Maree Teesson, has said that there is increasing evidence that marijuana is often the key to `unlocking' psychosis in vulnerable people. In August this year, she told the Sydney Morning Herald:

New data shows you are twice as likely to develop psychosis if you have used cannabis.

And in those who already have a condition like schizophrenia, the symptoms are exacerbated and the onset of serious symptoms is hastened.

Because rates of cannabis use have increased steadily over the last five years, Dr Teesson has expressed the view that health services may not have the capacity to deal with a greater number of people who develop psychosis. We still do not know that there is in fact a direct link between marijuana and high rates of youth suicide, but rates of suicide and self-harm are high in young people aged between 14 and 29 when cannabis use is highest. I am pleased to say that in South Australia the laws relating to marijuana have been significantly strengthened. For example, only one plant can now be owned for personal use—down from 10 plants—with an expiation fee of $150, and tougher penalties for hydroponics are now on the way.

In conclusion, it is important that the public, especially young people, are well educated and well informed of the effects that cannabis smoking these days can have on their lungs and their pulmonary and respiratory systems. There is an increased risk of pulmonary infections, particularly of respiratory cancers, associated with cannabis smoking and possible short- and long-term effects on brain function. As a member of the board of a drug rehabilitation house in South Australia, I am very well aware of the number of young people who go on to harder drug use having begun experimenting with drugs using either alcohol or cannabis, both of which are often regarded in the community as soft or relatively harmless drugs. There is now increasing evidence to very clearly show that they are not. A combination of education and information will be crucial in making sure that young people— and their parents—understand that the marijuana cigarettes that were smoked in the sixties are no longer the marijuana cigarettes that are being smoked in the new century. They are in fact a good deal stronger and potentially a great deal more carcinogenic with very strong risks to our young people.