Monday, February 19, 2007

Youth Drops Pot Habit In Australia

3 Out Of 4 Australians View Smoking Cannabis As "Dangerous"

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Australia was amongst the highest ranked nations in the world for cannabis use amongst its teenagers. Remarkably, in one period during the late 1990s, Australian youth smoked cannabis more regularly than similar age groups in Amsterdam, where cannabis was legally allowed to be grown and consumed in coffee shops

During that period, there was a brazen and open dope culture in Australian cities like Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, with an entire community in the far north of New South Wales that regarded cannabis farming and sales as its primary industry.

T-shirts bearing pot icons like Cheech & Chong and Bob Marley were extremely popular in the suburbs and inner cities, as were images of the Pope John Paul II smoking a huge scud (clearly altered imagery) and in Sydney's outer west, at least, it was considered by some that the epitome of true wit was to wear a t-shirt showing Hitler giving the fascist salute with the tag line "My Plants Are This High!"

Back then, the marijuana leaf was an icon, to be found hand-drawn on school bags, tattooed onto upper arms, emblazoned across caps, jeans, t-shirts and jackets. Whole suburbs were blighted with marijuana leaf graffiti and bongs, stash boxes and joint rollers jostled for space in tobacco store display cases in shopping malls.

But a new report claims that a widely stoned Australian youth populace is a fading reality in the mid-2000s. In short, smoking a joint just ain't considered "cool" any more.

According to this study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre one third of youth regard cannabis use as "socially unfashionable", in much the same way that cigarette smoking no longer holds the social cache it clearly once did.

"Clearly, it's not as acceptable as it once was to be stoned," said Paul Dillon, a spokesman for the centre at the University of NSW.

But the study survey also revealed that half of all Australians under 30 knew friends who smoked cannabis. The disparity between the public image of cannabis use and the numbers still using it are obviously great.

What the study seems to reveal, primarily, is that a few years worth of media stories and federal government fear campaigns about the mental health related problems associated with regular, or heavy, cannabis use has transformed the way Australians now view the drug previously, and widely, regarded as "mostly harmless".

Of the 1500 adult Australians surveyed, three in four felt smoking dope was dangerous or very dangerous, and half thought it could trigger schizophrenia or anxiety disorders.

About 40 per cent believed marijuana was always addictive, and one in five believed it was always a gateway to harder drugs. Sixty-eight per cent thought cannabis use could lead to other crimes.

"In the 1970s the people who got stoned were cool but now younger people just see a gang of guys who sit around smoking a bong, eating a pizza and watching television," Mr Dillon said.

"There's a general perception they're just 'stoners' and that's a real change."

Dillon also credits school education programs for the raised awareness amongst youth of cannabis' more troubling side effects, while federal government spokesmen prefer to credit their murky, troubled-youth advertising blitzes for the vast cultural shift.

From :
"We're not focusing on the long-term health effects or even necessarily the psychological effects, we're looking more at the social impacts, the way that it will affect your relationship, how will it affect your financial situation - these are the things young people really relate to," (Mr Dillon) said.

"I think we've done a pretty good job of educating, particularly young people, that getting stoned is not a particularly fun thing to do," he said.

While the public at large believes cannabis to be far more dangerous, and less socially acceptable, than they once did, there is little support for those busted with cannabis to face courts. 60% of those surveyed said people busted for cannabis use or possession "should be referred to treatment programs" instead.

The report's only bad news, said Mr Dillon, was that many beliefs people had about cannabis - like the fact it leads to harder drug use - were actually incorrect.

"Cannabis seems to polarise people which gives off a black and white impression of the drug," he said.

"It's spoken of as either God's sweet nectar or the devil's own weed but in reality it's something in between.

It should also be noted that the cannabis in wide use around Australia at the moment is extraordinarily strong compared to that of the early 1990s. And compared to the strains of the 1970s, it may as well be another drug altogether.

The increased strength of today's cannabis is due to high-volume, maximum-yield production methods associated with the mostly hydroponic crops, and the cross-breeding of extremely powerful European strains of the plant.

The strength of this generation of hydroponic cannabis has all but forced the much weaker, more naturally grown New Guinea and Indonesian strains out of the marketplace.

For a teenager smoking his or her first joint, and expecting a mellow, relaxed effect, with lots of giggling, hooking into a joint packed with THC-drenched hydroponic pot is like the difference between drinking a beer and a tall glass of vodka.

The overpowering, sometimes frightening effects of very strong hydroponic cannabis in itself must add to the current negativity surrounding the drug.

For, it seems, as cannabis in Australia has grown stronger and stronger, since the 1970s, its acceptance as a social drug of no great impact or consequence has, correspondingly, changed as well.