Responsible consumption is a contentious issue. Responsibility is a value that would seem to be an indicator of maturity. And maturity, in this case, has nothing to do with age. There are some very mature children and some extremely childish adults. This picture can be extrapolated to psychoactive substance use.
Some practitioners working in drugs think responsible use is an oxymoron since the simple fact of using them, however occasional and moderate it may be, is inherently irresponsible and by extension hazardous. These interpretations view drug use as Manichaean, i.e. black or white, abstinence or addiction. No middle ground. With no other colour tones to show for it. Without acknowledging the variety and richness of human relationships with psychoactive substances. Failing to accept that use can be totally compatible with a regular life. And, indeed, with a life replete with enjoyment. As is well known, responsible consumption is not only possible but also the approach taken by the majority of users.
However, what does responsible use mean? To be sure, each individual user could give a definition of it. Nevertheless, the scientific literature provides a relatively standard definition of responsible use. An initial one would be as follows: ‘Responsible drug use is the use of substances in which the user derives only pleasure and benefit’. This ideal responsible use is known to be extremely difficult to achieve. Who hasn’t experienced a white-out? Who hasn’t felt sluggish when waking up the morning after a huge smoke? Who hasn’t decided to skip school so as to roll another joint bright and early? There’s no doubt that most people have at some point taken risks that have led to more or less serious harm.
However, there are different kinds of harm associated with cannabis (and all drugs). Some might be seen as minor and others as extremely serious. Skipping class first thing in the morning because the previous night’s smoke inexplicably makes your sheets stick to you is not the same as when, after months of unbridled consumption, you start hearing voices talking nonsense, to the point that you end up having haloperidol for breakfast while drooling because you can’t even control how much you open your mouth. This picture might seem harsh, yet the harm done by cannabis can also be harsh. Of course, not everyone is equally vulnerable and not everyone is exposed to the same degree of mental health-related harm, yet likewise no one is immune to it. There are no super-people or immortals, although sometimes the sense of felt vulnerability means the perceptual system makes people believe they are impervious to any kind of harm. Thinking like this is the first step in exploring the uncharted territory of mental health problems.
That said, on educational and psychosocial grounds, it is obvious that most people have experienced, or will experience, the most minor harms of cannabis. Hence, the scientific literature provides a definition that shifts away from the ‘ideal scenario’ to a more pragmatic reality. The pragmatic definition of responsible use is as follows: ‘The use of substances for their benefits and pleasures and which may cause some harm, yet this harm does not prevent the user from living a socially normal life’. The issue of normality is crucial to avert problems, or at least you need to appear to be normal, because if you are labelled as ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’, this is what people who accept this label will consider you to be even if you are absolutely normal in society. It is well known that being normal or deviant is arbitrary and usually has little to do with reality. So if you don’t want to have problems when interacting with others, no matter how deviant you may consider yourself to be, you have to appear to be normal in social contexts. Another issue is the identity and social benefits gained by people who claim to be deviant, but that, as mentioned above, is another matter.
The most straightforward strategy to avert cannabis-related problems is to keep the frequency and intensity of your cannabis use compatible with everyday life. So what is the right frequency and intensity to avoid problems? Again, this is a question that depends on the individual, their lifestyle and social responsibilities. An undergraduate not going to a lecture doesn’t have the same consequences as an employee in a company failing to turn up for a meeting.
In the former case, no one will tell you off and it may be seen as minor fallout from drug use. In the latter case, it is highly likely that you will be reprimanded by your bosses and may even end up getting the sack because your drug use has made it impossible for you to accomplish the targets set by your job, i.e. you will sustain serious harm as a result of irresponsible consumption. Aside from the existential specifics of each person, responsible use always safeguards social, physical and mental health.
- You think an event happened in a particular way but others suggest it took place in a totally different manner. If there is a mismatch between your own perception and that of your friends, you should stop and think about what might be going on.
- Your peers, who until now had accepted your drug use, point out that you are over-using. People who care about us will want the best for us. If they tell you that, there must be a reason for it. You need to think seriously about it.
- You start to have various kinds of perceptual disturbances such as visual flashes, hearing noises and not knowing where they come from, etc. You have to watch out for perceptual disturbances because they tend to mean the person is on the verge of serious mental health problems.
- You are obsessed with small, everyday details. You have to be on the lookout for threats around you, but ants can never turn into a hydra-headed snake.
- You think people are hounding you with intent to do harm. You should be wary of paranoid traits. There’s no need to mention again what this might lead to.
- You neglect your daily tasks and responsibilities. So what do you do then? Do you smoke all day? Beware of making life all about joints. You should diversify your everyday activities. There’s time for everything.
- You ignore friendships to be on your own. It might seem amusing to say ‘That way I don’t have to share my joints’, but it’s not funny to end up talking, laughing and crying alone. Friendships are the best anxiolytic, antipsychotic and antidepressant mankind has ever created. If you don’t nurture them, you’ll end up needing psychotropic drugs.
- Proper personal hygiene is a Herculean task. This is a sign that you’re neglecting even the most basic habits. If showering becomes a chore, then what might coping with your own problems entail?
- You spend more money than your personal finances allow. As a result, you steal from relatives, pawn valuables, lie to get cash and engage in other informal or illegal practices. Resorting to these actions opens the door to irreversible personal and criminal consequences.
- You need ever-increasing amounts of cannabis to get the same effects. Be wary of tolerance. A person who needs large amounts of cannabis to get high is not a better smoker. Isn’t it better to get the same effects with small amounts?
These and other unwanted situations can endanger a person’s normal behaviour. Watch out for the signs of excess. It is essential to stop using before it makes life difficult. Most cannabis-related problems clear up on their own soon after quitting. If you stop for a period of time and then the symptoms come back when you start using again, it’s time to give it up for good. Maybe cannabis has been a friendship you’ve had since your teenage years and it may have given you lots of great times, but not all friendships are always good company and it’s time to call off the relationship. To avoid these situations, it’s advisable to take regular breaks, i.e. to stop using for a while. Forty days (now that quarantines are so fashionable) is an ideal time to eliminate tolerance and recover from unwanted dynamics.
But not everyone can give up using just by saying ‘That’s it, I’m not smoking any more’ or ‘I’m going to give up joints for a while’. If you find that despite your best efforts it is hard, if not impossible, to stop smoking and you are still using even though you had decided to quit, it’s time to seek professional help. Obviously, doing this is tough because it means admitting you haven’t been able to control your consumption, yet it’s a crucial step towards enhancing your quality of life. And most importantly, to avoid crossing the border which leads to a point of no return. There’s no need to be afraid. By taking this step, you’re moving forward towards your own wellbeing. You can ask for help in a number of ways: in addition to calling the Línia Verda [‘Green Helpline’] (900 900 540) where you can get free information and guidance on what to do, it’s also a good idea to talk to the staff at the cannabis association you go to. First of all, these people are trained to provide personalised advice on how to cut down on consumption and also on how to quit if need be. They are fully aware of the situation of cannabis users. They do not judge users or present them with totally unrealistic scenarios, but rather provide them with extremely helpful guidelines to turn the situation around. Furthermore, if they feel it is appropriate, they can refer users to healthcare services, which deliver a response tailored to users’ circumstances. If this is the case, it’s up to the user to take the first step. Step by step, but make sure it isn’t the last one.