New research shows that teenage cannabis use causes lasting damage. As well as the physiological damage, Buddhism suggests that drugs are about avoiding experience rather than engaging with mindfully with it
Some of the parents I know with teenage children who use cannabis are fairly relaxed about what’s happening. ‘It isn’t doing any harm’, one tells me. ‘Alcohol’s much worse.’ Others would really like their children to stop but are at their wits end. It’s OK, they say, but not in the house, not on weekdays, or only after you’ve done your homework.
I don’t envy them and no doubt the scientific study reported this week will fuel their worries. It finds that, true to the stoner stereotype, cannabis users have problems with memory, attention and processing information. Most worryingly, the IQs of people who start using cannabis before eighteen drop by an average eight percent, and the damage persists even if they later stop.
The cannabis users I know usually want to chill out, escape stress and access a state of mellow relaxation. Some say it’s natural: a herb, not a drug and an alternative to harried modern living. In fact, some believe, it’s rather like meditation. However, Buddhism has five main ethical precepts and the last is ‘abstaining from intoxicants’. This isn’t a rigorous prohibition, and Buddhists aren’t always strictly teetotal or drug-free. It’s a ‘principle of training’, as we say, that encourages people to avoid drink and drugs because they ‘cloud the mind’ and cause ‘heedlessness’.
The positive counterpart of the precept is the practice of mindfulness: the capacity to be fully present and attentive to whatever’s happening in our experience. In other words, Buddhism posits a choice in our mental lives between avoiding what’s happening if it’s difficult or troubling; and acknowledging or even accepting it.
People who use drugs to circumvent serious emotional difficulties are choosing avoidance, and the work of therapists is helping them to find alternatives to escaping their problems. But the Buddhist perspective is also relevant to those for whom smoking cannabis is just an enjoyable way to relax and be with friends.
This has become increasingly acceptable because it seems harmless. However, the new research suggests that, in the case of teenage cannabis use, that’s far from the truth. If the research withstands scrutiny, laissez faire attitudes will have to change. But alongside the physiological dangers are the emotional and psychological effects of drug use. The fundamental choice we all face is whether to inhabit a haze filled by dope smoke or some other form of sedative, intoxicant, entertainment or distraction; or to engage with our lives wholeheartedly, with all their frustrations and all their beauty.
This was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot on 29/08/2012. UK readers can listen to the audio here