Yvonne McCalla Sobers | Ganja: youth and truth
Jamaica's 'Talk Di Truth' public-education campaign on youth and ganja use was launched on September 13. Some speakers at the launch used terms and voiced opinions that youth may question if they were paying attention. For example, why use the name 'marijuana' rather than 'ganja'? Will teaching of 'facts' reduce 'abuse of the substance'?
What is the basis of Minister of Education, Youth, and Information Ruel Reid's statement that use of ganja has caused many promising youth to fail? How much reliance can be placed on Justice Minister Delroy Chuck's "impression" that more young persons have taken up ganja use since decriminalisation? On what data does he base the probability that ganja use destroys minds? And what is the source of Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton's claim that ganja is a gateway to hard drugs?
If Talk di Truth is to be credible to youth, those associated with the programme need to:
- Refer to the plant as 'ganja', the Jamaica name originating in India. 'Marijuana' is a US slang with a controversial history linked to racism and stigma. 'Ganja' and 'cannabis' have been around much longer and have a far more positive history than 'marijuana'.
- Ensure the programme is grounded in reality rather than knee-jerk reaction based on prejudice and outdated or inaccurate information. Overstating will turn off the youth.
- Refrain from repeating what youth can prove to be lies, deceit and fake news. Today's youth can fact-check information in real time.
- Acknowledge that youth may know scores of their Jamaican elders who have smoked ganja for a lifetime without suffering long-term brain damage. Some of these persons could well be respected public figures. At the same time, youth who are vulnerable need to be identified and helped.
- Avoid stating as absolute the positions that scientists have not yet fully proved. For example, there is no consensus among scientists on causal links between ganja and psychosis, addiction, drugged driving, and poor academic performance. If two things happen at the same time, it does not necessarily follow that one caused the other.
- Question 'evidence-based plans' where 'evidence' may be based on junk science, the 'war on drugs' philosophy, or research funded by pharmaceutical and alcohol companies.
- Clarify risks and benefits of ganja, pointing out that all drugs (including over-the-counter and prescription drugs) carry both risks and benefits. It is important to note factors that generally make for higher risks associated with ganja use: younger age, poverty, school failure, family or social problems, household violence or abuse, physical and mental condition, poor impulse control, increased amount and frequency, as well as time and place of drug.
- Show that legal or illegal drug use is on a continuum from beneficial to harmful, and many legal substances (such as sugar, alcohol, and tobacco) are more harmful than ganja.
- Assess the link (if any) between ganja use and dropping out of school. There may be factors such as gender, classism, personality traits, school policy, and underfunding of schools, unfriendly and dysfunctional educational systems that may be more likely to lead students to drop out of school, even where there is no ganja use.
- Treat as tentative the research so far on the impact of ganja use on learning and memory. Effects are said to be short-term. When a recent Jamaican study was conducted, users were asked to smoke ganja within 24-48 hours of being tested for learning and memory. The implication is that the effect of ganja on students' learning and memory declines over time.
- Review claims about ganja use and brain damage. It must be noted that even caffeine has an effect on the brain, and that the effect of ganja on the brain is so far shown to be minimal and reversible for most users. But about one in five persons is likely to be more vulnerable than others, especially if that person is under 18 years old.
- Engage youth in problem-solving and decision-making activities (not limited to ganja use) that help them to balance risks and benefits and improve judgement, and decrease risk of harm. Youth tend toward high-risk behaviour. They have been compared to car with a fully functioning gas pedal (craving for good feelings) but with inadequate brakes (inability to assess consequences and act accordingly). Youth need help in making decisions based on sound judgement.
- Analyse how strong or enduring are the motives for ganja use: Curiosity? Self-esteem? Life challenges? Stress relief? Desire to fit in, especially at parties? Chronic mental or physical health problems? Absence of connections or meaningful relationships in their lives? Need to get out of themselves in an attempt to cope with problems that seem beyond their control? Motives will vary from person to person.
- Put to rest the belief that ganja is a gateway drug. Available data show that ganja users (humans, not rats) do not necessarily go on to using harsh and deadly drugs like cocaine or heroin. Even prohibitionists no longer defend the theory that ganja is a gateway drug.
- Differentiate between youth who use drugs and youth who have drug problems. Many youth who experiment with ganja never develop harmful patterns of use. In addition, problem patterns of drug use may be signs that life challenges are overwhelming youth.
- Include tips for safe ganja use. For example, youth under age 18 will need to avoid ganja use while the brain is developing, and particularly where they have a family history of mental-health problems. Youth over age 18 who choose to use ganja will need to go low and slow, buy ganja from trusted sources, opt for the least potent ways of consuming ganja, stay away from, and not drive, a car or operating machinery for at least four hours after using ganja. Youth will also need to know what to do or not do if they go beyond their limits and have a bad experience. They need to have truth that addresses their realities and keeps them safe.
Talk Di Truth, therefore, needs to help youth to navigate terrain with which adults may be unfamiliar. Communication needs to inspire youth to share their perceptions of, and attitudes towards, ganja use. Youth will be quick to see through adults' words, get to motive, and detect signs of hypocrisy, especially from adults with alcohol and tobacco habits. Rigidity, lecturing and judgemental comments will cloud the messages of the programme.
To complement the talk in Talk Di Truth, government ministries will need to arrange for safe spaces where youth can enjoy life without relying on ganja use. With designated spaces to hang out with friends, listen to music, surf the Internet, play sports, and access counselling where needed, youth will 'feel good' while reinforcing behaviours that strengthen social bonds and contribute to learning, health, and well-being.
Youth need all the help they can get to assess risks, think through consequences, and identify alternatives that help them to feel whole. Talk Di Truth will, therefore, succeed if it is oriented more to addressing needs of youth than accommodating fears of adults.
Youth who turn to ganja as a crutch need support in reflecting on their lives, seeing possibilities, identifying what they want, and making the decisions that will enable them to achieve their goals.