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Don’t lull teens into drugs, expert warns

Addictions expert Prof. Barry Jackson makes a case against the medical use of marijuana and believes Malta’s legal drinking age is a mistake. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Addictions expert Prof. Barry Jackson makes a case against the medical use of marijuana and believes Malta’s legal drinking age is a mistake. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

A study that is looking into the lifestyles of Maltese 15- and 16-year-olds has found that as perceived risk decreases among them, their use of illegal substances increases.

As a student perceives not much risk in using marijuana – in terms of parental disapproval, arrest and health issues – utilisation goes up

The cause of the decline in perceived risk is thought to be increased unwitting endorsement from society in general, said Prof. Barry Jackson, an American expert in the field of drug and alcohol addictions.

“As a student perceives not much risk in using marijuana – in terms of parental disapproval, arrest and health issues – utilisation goes up.”

Prof. Jackson, in Malta on a Fulbright Specialist Program that is addressing alcohol and drug abuse among youths, believes legalising cannabis is tantamount to state endorsement, with all its implications.

“When a government tacitly turns a blind eye, does not enforce the law, or actually decides to legalise, or decriminalise, then you are on a slippery slope.

“It is paving the way for the introduction of attitudes that say: it is really not that bad.”

Research shows that, on the other hand, in the case of, for example, parental disapproval, even though the child may be upset and pretend not to care, the bottom line is that they do and it leads to changes in behaviour.

“They do listen at some level. They may not totally stop, but the situation is not as bad as if the parent were to endorse it,” he insists.

A psychologist and Fulbright Senior Specialist Fellow, Prof. Jackson is working on a project to determine whether Maltese 15- and 16-year-olds are leading a specific lifestyle that would indicate the potential use of illegal substances, legal substances used in an unhealthy way, and participation in gambling and premarital sexual behaviours.

The study, which is following up on the latest European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, to be released in May, should be concluded in September. The plan is also to draw up a database of reports and information for other researchers to access easily.

His comments on legalisation come in the wake of a demonstration for cannabis law reform, calling for the decriminalisation of the illegal substance in response to “exaggerated” judgements in related cases.

No cannabis-based medicines are licensed for use in Malta and the demonstration in December also highlighted the drug’s potential medicinal benefits, saying “the real crime is denying the plant to those who need it for health reasons”.

But Prof. Jackson maintains the medical use of marijuana is “certainly not warranted”. He cites “clear epidemiological evidence that THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, is responsible for exacerbating schizophrenia, and if you are prone to it, it can move that illness faster.

“Medical research shows there is no justification to write a prescription for cannabis. We should not be prescribing THC tablets for chronic pain, nausea and cancer treatment if we have a medication that can serve the same purpose, without the debilitating side effects and the potential to cause psychosis.”

In the US, marijuana is “an enormous issue that has gotten away from us”, he maintains.

Approved in several states for medical purposes, it has led to abuse, with physicians having a private practice that entails “writing prescriptions for people to go next door, where they have a business interest, to buy marijuana”.

Evidence shows about 12 per cent of users become physiologically dependent at different levels and it is not possible to predict who is at a higher risk, he points out.

In Malta, around 12 per cent of 14- to 16-year-olds use marijuana and the percentage seems fairly consistent from the late 1990s to today. “What we do not know is how often and how much...”

Prof. Jackson agrees with the government’s plans to ensure that first-time offenders caught with drugs for personal use are given a formal warning, rather than being prosecuted in court.

“For smoking a joint, you could go to jail for 10 years in, say, Texas. I think it is an overreaction. Jailing a person could cost about $40,000 a year. I do not think that makes sense…

“I think it makes sense to have some sort of formal warning and have a record of it… One of the things we know about the penal code in the US is that if you put someone in prison, he’ll become a better criminal.”

As regards alcohol, which is not perceived as a huge problem in Malta even though it is, Prof. Jackson states Malta’s legal drinking age – 16 – is a mistake.

“As a psychologist and knowing what I know about the human brain, I know its development is not finalised until 28. Research shows that the earlier drugs and alcohol are used, the higher the incidence of physiological dependence and the more likely users are to get into trouble…”

According to some of the latest data, between 85 and 92 per cent of 14- to 16-year-olds are drinkers in Malta.

Prof. Jackson has presented a model of best practices for alcohol and drugs interventions in a university setting to Personal and Social Development teachers, the Maltese Psychological Association, and the Malta Association for the Counselling Profession in the hope that they may implement some of it.

The Pennsylvania model, which has been duplicated in many US universities, includes community service, counselling sessions, a full evaluation, participation in 12 hours of classes specific to the offence and a test.

“Instead of sending offenders to jail, they are given an option – they either complete the programme, or they are imprisoned. Most sensible people choose the programme.

“If they do not pass the final test, they have to repeat everything. If they fail in anyway to follow the programme, they are arrested and go to jail.”

Brief interventions for college students, based on two counselling sessions, have been found to be effective for moderate drinkers, Prof. Jackson says, pointing out that the model has led to behaviour changes.

“But there is no silver bullet that kills the werewolf” and any intervention alone has less effect.

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