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Caution in decriminalising ganja: We must protect our children

DERRICK AAROWS

Saturday, March 01, 2014    

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The strong push to decriminalise ganja in Jamaica for medicinal use or scientific purposes has accelerated recently and is said to be on the Parliamentary agenda for the upcoming legislative year.

Many have trumpeted the potential benefits of this matter as including gains in human rights, tourism, medicinal research, taxation, agricultural and broad economic benefits. Specifically, there has been much discussion regarding a possible medicinal marijuana industry that could bring potentially great economic benefits to Jamaica. However, not much discussion, if any, has occurred on the burdens or risks that come with decriminalising ganja.

A study published in the February 7, 2014 edition of the medical journal Annals of Emergency Medicine found that the incidence of marijuana (ganja) exposure in children has increased between 2005 and 2011 in the states of the USA that have passed marijuana legislation. The data was gathered from the America Association of Poison Control Centres National Poison Data System, and found that the call rate for unintentional marijuana exposure among children younger than nine years increased by 30.3 per cent in states where laws decriminalising marijuana use had been passed. The rate was unchanged in states with no marijuana legislation.

The effects of ganja on children

Symptoms of children exposed to marijuana were varied, but were primarily neurologic. The authors of the study therefore recommended that lawmakers should consider specific requirements when drafting marijuana legislation to minimise the effects on children. Such requirements would include child-resistant packaging, warning labels, and public education.

A not so well-known or little-discussed fact is that the intake of ganja into the body negatively affects short-term memory, thereby inhibiting a student's ability to learn. Learning involves information (knowledge) initially being stored in short-term memory for a couple of days before it is transferred by the brain to 'long-term' memory for permanent storage and recall.

Anything that inhibits the functioning of short-term memory will impair learning and the acquisition of knowledge. The smoking or ingestion of ganja therefore disproportionally affects our youth and student population adversely at a critical juncture in their education.

The Medical Association Seminar on Ganja

In September 2000, the Ethics Committee of the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) conducted two seminars to consider all aspects of the possible decriminalisation of ganja in Jamaica to help formulate the MAJ's policy position on the subject. The MAJ's position was then submitted to the National Committee on Ganja, chaired by Professor Barry Chevannes, and was included in his recommendation to the Government of Jamaica.

On the balance of all the points and potentially negative and positive consequences raised in its seminars, the MAJ recommended that ganja be decriminalised in Jamaica for personal use in small quantities by persons of legal age, but that all efforts (and I am paraphrasing here) should be made to prevent children and adolescents from coming into contact with ganja.

I strongly urge marijuana advocates, our parliamentarians, and all members of the lay public to read the recommendations of that report by the National Commission on Ganja (available online) in its entirety to be more informed on this important issue. The report is filled with crucial information and is quite extensive in its scope.

Protecting our Children

In Jamaica we are currently doing a very poor job of protecting a significant portion of our children and therefore should be very concerned about any matter that might inhibit their ability to learn, thereby blighting their future prospects for effectively competing intellectually in the global marketplace. In addition to public education about this particular concern, the challenge will be how we reduce contact between children and ganja in the home, and how we mitigate the pervading belief that 'a little weed fe de youth good fe dem'.

Ganja contains over 400 known chemicals, and the most abundant -- tetrahydrocannobinol (THC) -- has intoxicating properties. Its effects can include euphoria, impairment of psychomotor and cognitive function (these are important for driving a vehicle or operating machinery), an increased heart rate and lowering of blood pressure (a concern for persons with ischaemic heart disease), a loss of sense of time, and confusion.

Ganja can also cause anxiety, panic, and compulsive habitual use (which is not a physiological dependence or addiction) in many persons.

All persons are not equally affected, and so this reality has led to societal acceptance of ganja use without the necessary safeguards to protect the more vulnerable.

We need to be pre-emptive in our approach, however, as we contemplate decriminalising ganja in Jamaica, and so we must concomitantly discuss the safeguards we need to implement to protect our children.

Dr Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician — a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is a member of the executive council of RedBioetica UNESCO.

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