UWI in Society

“It's something we must consider. The aftermath of the pandemic and coping with illness, death, and stringent measures surely led to a high risk of a mental health epidemic,” warned Professor Gerard Hutchinson from The UWI’s Faculty of Medical Sciences.

In such taxing circumstances people often turn to substances such as alcohol or cannabis. But what if these imperfect remedies lead to an outcome almost as bad?

The question of whether the abuse of cannabis and other intoxicating substances could be classified as an epidemic emerged during a panel discussion titled “Cannabis Use and Young Persons” hosted by the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Department of Behavioural Sciences (DBS) on January 25, 2024. This event, held at the Social Sciences Lounge at the St Augustine campus, tackled the potential risks facing the nation’s youth.

“Canabidiols (CBD) can cause some psychoactive effects, and there is surely some medical value in Tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC),” said Prof Hutchinson. He pointed out that our bodies naturally have cannabinoids as they produce endo-cannabinoids responsible for various responses.

Psychiatrists are witnessing a surge in cannabis-related psychosis cases. Prof Hutchinson mentioned, “Excessive cannabis consumption can cause suicidal ideation, panic disorder, and short-term memory loss”. Effects he said, “Which can be repaired through abstinence”.

‘We have to reorient our perception of substance abuse’

On the question of whether THC causes psychosis, he asserted, “There is no final answer, but evidence suggests that people predisposed to psychiatric disorders are at a higher risk of cannabis use and suffering from psychosis.” He urged the audience to be aware of their family history regarding mental disorders and cannabis use.

“We have to reorient our perception of substance use, as other drugs caused lots of problems. We live in a society that promotes permissive use of substances. However, lack of information prevents people from making informed decisions,” revealed Prof Hutchinson. He also noted that rehab centres aren't focused on cannabis, as the primary focus is mainly on alcohol, cocaine, and prescription drugs.

The panel, moderated by DBS sociology lecturer Dr Tyehimba Salandy, included DBS research psychologist Dr Joni Lee Pow, Professor of Pharmacology Yuri Clement, and Senior Council Rajiv Persad of Allum Chambers. The discussion delved into the diverse impact of cannabis use among young individuals.

Head of DBS Dr Talia Esnard stated in her welcome address, that young people were “being offered cannabis, yet few of them are actually aware of what this substance really is.”

Dr Esnard said the panel discussion aimed to equip students with knowledge for more informed decisions regarding substance use.

Dr Salandy gave special mention to the work of the late independent scholar Dr Peter Hanoomansingh and his research on cannabis use and legislation in Trinidad and Tobago.

For young people, knowledge and education are key

Dr Lee Pow's presentation focused on the inadequacies of knowledge of potency levels in cannabis substances and products. She asserted, “THC is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis; however, this is one of 113 total cannabinoids that can be found in the plant.”

According to the International Research Programme on Psychoses in Diverse Settings (INTREPID), about 20 percent of the local population used cannabis daily. Dr Lee Pow stated, “Persons who used cannabis two times or more per week were at risk of a psychiatric disorder.”

On the legality of cannabis use, Rajiv Persad remarked, “Laws did not discriminate or differentiate based on age when it came to cannabis under the Dangerous Drugs Act.”

Describing the laws as draconian, he added, “The criminal justice system was overburdened by police bringing people to court for possession.”

The legislation was amended in 2001 to introduce mandatory imprisonment of 25 years for the trafficking of dangerous drugs, including cannabis. Mr Persad explained, “There were minor allowances for young people. However, typically the fine was TT$100,000 with an additional 15-year sentence for non-payment.”

Dr Salandy remarked, “We in the Caribbean had missed an opportunity, as it's only when our neighbours in the West acted on amendments that we reacted, while Rastafarians had been championing amendments for quite some time.”

570 published studies on the medicinal benefits of cannabis

Providing an alternative perspective, Professor Yuri Clement said, “Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to cannabis!”

Though cannabis is still a Schedule I drug, Professor Clement noted there were still benefits to it, with over 570 published studies on the medicinal benefits, including pain relief, and the treatment of nausea, vomiting, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis.

Professor Clement highlighted cannabis’s usefulness for treating severe cases of epilepsy like Dravet Syndrome, which typically do not respond to standard medication. He stressed the need to balance the benefits and risks of cannabis, recommending further exploration into the other chemicals found in the plant.

Cannabis activist Marcus Ramkissoon encouraged The UWI to use its prominent voice to put pressure on the government to educate the public on cannabis.

He remarked, “Giving the layman the right to create their own medicine is akin to giving the population firearms to protect themselves, which would then result in no need for police. Similarly, what would be the role of doctors and pharmacologists?”

Cherisse Lauren Berkeley is a journalist, activist, mas-maker, and multidisciplinary artist.