Almost 60 percent of people from 20 to 29 years old in Australia have experimented with cannabis at some time in their life. Many of these used the drug once or twice and then never used again. Unfortunately some cannabis users experience great problems with their use -“ often this is due to a predisposition to a mental illness or it can be that they develop a dependence on the drug.

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the Western world. In addition to dependence, the most probable chronic harms from regular (daily or near daily), sustained use (over several years) include subtle cognitive impairment affecting attention, memory and the organisation and integration of complex information. As cannabis is almost always smoked, adverse respiratory effects such as chronic bronchitis and smoking-related cancers may also be cause for concern. In addition, many smokers mix cannabis with tobacco, and some are also regular tobacco smokers. There is some evidence that some of the negative respiratory effects of cannabis and tobacco may be additive.

For a long time experts have argued over whether there was such a thing as cannabis dependence. Dependence is very much linked to the withdrawal symptoms that the user experiences and for most cannabis users these are quite mild and usually include headaches, stomach aches and difficulty sleeping. Even though these are not life-threatening, many users still find that they are unpleasant enough and strong enough to cause them to start using the drug again. Many clinicians believe that due to the relatively mild withdrawal syndrome associated with cannabis it is highly unlikely that cannabis dependence exists and that treatment is unnecessary.

However, all the research indicates that the demand for treatment for cannabis use is increasing internationally. Australia has seen a doubling in the rates of cannabis treatment-seeking nationally from 2000-1 to 2001-2, with the rate much higher among those aged under 20 years old.

Although the effects of cannabis are unlike those of any other drug, the way in which dependence develops is quite similar. Using heavily (on most days) over a long period of time results in certain physical and psychological changes. The user may find that the effects of cannabis can, over time, get weaker, as they acquire tolerance to its effects. That is, they will need more of the drug to get the same effect. This is due to the body gradually adapting to the effects of the drug, which contributes to physical and psychological dependence.

If you feel that you are dependent on cannabis and need assistance with quitting the drug it is best to talk to the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS). This is a 24-hour telephone counselling service operated by trained professionals. Their telephone number is 9361 8000 or 1800 422 599 (toll free). Currently they are running a specific Cannabis QuitLine for people who believe they have a problem with the drug.

Cannabis self-help groups are now set up right across Sydney. Some GPs have also been given training to help those who believe they cannot quit the drug without assistance. ADIS will do their best to put you in touch with these services.

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