The dangers of drugs are being reminded across schools in the UK for the start of 2020 after six 14-year-old students fell ill through eating cakes laced with cannabis last week.
One pupil, who has now been permanently excluded, brought the cakes to school on a Friday before all six students were admitted to hospital as a precautionary measure.
Staff at the school were left “deeply concerned by this isolated and unprecedented incident”, while the local council reinforced the school’s “robust” stance on drug policy and drug education.
All of the pupils admitted to hospital were swiftly discharged with “no lasting damage”, although the incident serves as a reminder of how careful people need to be while consuming cannabis, especially edibles and particularly at a young age.
Ingesting too much THC can lead to an ‘overdose’ on cannabis, with it being reported to occasionally bring on effects similar to stimulants such as methamphetamine, with symptoms such as vomiting, heart arrhythmias and potential psychotic episodes in extreme cases.
Other more common symptoms include anxiety, panic attacks, increased heart rate and rapid breathing, with risk factors mostly involving a lack of knowledge of the substance such as using cannabis for the first time or taking high doses of it.
Eating cannabis edibles with a high THC content is also associated with a higher risk of ‘overdose’ symptoms, as the THC in edibles is metabolised differently and takes longer to absorb which offsets the associated feelings of a high and leads the user to taking more and more.
Along with often having a high THC content, edibles may be disguised as commonly baked goodies such as brownies or cookies, increasing the risk of accidentally being eaten by an unsuspecting consumer, with children falling befoul of accidental ingestion of edibles as their curiosity gets the best of them.
Small children are often at a higher risk of overdose incidents based on their weight and size, and due to the high content of THC in edibles the symptoms are often more severe than in adults and as a result, small children who accidentally ingest cannabis edibles most often require hospital visits due to nature of the symptoms.
Cannabis-related hospital visits on the rise
Since legalising cannabis for recreational use four years ago, Colorado has seen a spike in hospital admissions from citizens reportedly ‘overdosing’ on cannabis.
While it’s known that it is impossible to die from a cannabis overdose, it is possible for people to have adverse reactions if they take something that has high levels of THC.
Advice from US health professionals states that if someone has a negative reaction to cannabis, in particular edibles, the best thing to do is to ride it out and wait for it to pass as no medication can suddenly end the high, and luckily negative reactions from cannabis almost always resolve themselves with no lasting damage.
Advice from Bonni Goldstein – a cannabis physician from southern California – states: “First, and most important: talk yourself down. You are not going to stop breathing and you are not going to die … Try to take your mind off it. Watch television for the distraction, or lie down and take a nap.”
But this isn’t always easy, as seen in 2017 when four men had to be rescued from the top of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, after they consumed cannabis and couldn’t get back down without assistance from mountain rescue, air support and an ambulance.
Stories of children being rushed to emergency departments in America after accidentally eating cannabis edibles in states where cannabis has been legalised for recreational use is increasingly common, as once it becomes legal, it is supposedly easier to accidentally leave cannabis out in places children may find it.
This scenario can be remedied if treated in the same way as alcohol, as parents would not leave an open bottle of alcohol in the reach of children so the same should be applied to legal cannabis.
Cannabis and the developing brain
While cannabis has shown to be beneficial for a multitude of medical issues, most of the promising benefits are a result of the chemical compound cannabidiol (CBD), which does not produce the ‘high’ often associated with smoking cannabis.
It is common knowledge that cannabis use, particularly THC intoxication, is often associated with impairment of attention span, memory and motor skills, with studies demonstrating that even acute cannabis use can impair memory as well as attentional and information processing abilities, which can however be recovered back to normal after around a month of abstinence.
Children and teenagers using cannabis are susceptible to experiencing these impairments, which can then lead to a decline in school performance as most effects are associated with brain function, which is vital for developing young people to keep as healthy and functional as possible whilst learning.
Two psychologists from Duke University followed and studied 1,000 New Zealanders who were all born in 1972 and observed their development for two decades with questions asked about cannabis use at the ages of 18, 21, 26, 32 and 38, along with the subjects undertaking neuropsychological testing at the ages of 13 and again at 38.
The results found that cannabis users who began using as teens and continued into adulthood experienced a variety of cognitive declines, including a decline in IQ of around 8 points on formal testing from age 11 to age 38.
This demonstrates that teenagers in particular are susceptible to long-term damage from cannabis use as the brain is still developing during this time, with studies suggesting brain development does not reach full maturity until 25 years old.
When developing, the brain is particularly sensitive to damage from drug use and the areas within the frontal cortex, which are responsible for decision making, judgement and personality, are some of the last areas of the brain to fully develop.
As well as affecting the brain structure and the future development of the brain in young adults, there is the risk of increasing the chances of mental health issues, particularly psychosis and schizophrenia.
Studies found that risks of mental health issues were higher in individuals who used cannabis in adolescence, however it may be attributed to those who are more inclined to inherit these specific mental illnesses as a result of family medical history alongside cannabis use.