Even the most seasoned cannabis users will tell you that greening out is no fun.

If you’re not familiar with the experience, think of it as a drug-induced panic attack. At least, that’s what it feels like. It can cause an actual panic attack, which is even less fun. Most people who have tried weed only to vow ‘never again’ usually consumed too much and ended up greening out. It’s that unpleasant.

Greening out tends to cause nausea, sweating and anxiety – leading people to feel like it’s hard to breathe, or that their heart is racing. The risk of greening out is elevated by combining cannabis with other drugs, particularly alcohol, which increases the body’s absorption of THC – cannabis’ main psychoactive compound. While greening out and panic attacks are relatively harmless, they feel awful to the person experiencing them, which creates a spiral. The more you panic, the more you panic.

If you are with a friend that is greening out, there are a few things you can do to help. First of all, try to calm the person. Reassure them that they are not in danger, and that the symptoms will pass. Take the person somewhere they will feel safe, give them plenty of water, and monitor them. Don’t leave them alone or give them cause to panic. Remember you’re a friend not a doctor, so if things get hairy call an ambulance.

Young people are more at risk of harm from cannabis

Cannabis itself has an extremely low risk of overdose, but it is not without harmful effects. Aside from greening out, there are longer-term aspects that people should definitely be made aware of. The risk factors are not the same for every person. Much of it comes down to your genetics and previous life experiences. Age, however, is a critical factor. Up until about the age of 25, the brain is still developing. This increases the likelihood and severity of any potential harm.

Adolescents who use cannabis are at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, self-harm and suicide. Research shows that cannabis is more likely to impact memory, learning, attention and problem-solving of young users, which is proven to impact life outcomes. The earlier a young person starts using cannabis, and the more they use, the greater the risk.

If you are a cannabis user, or know one, then a lot of this will sound familiar. While you can’t see the inner workings of someone’s mind or body, cannabis users have notoriously bad memories and attention spans. Young people – especially those in learning environments – are already putting their brains under tremendous stresses, and cannabis use can make things harder by reducing one’s ability to focus and be organised. Research also suggests that people who start using cannabis at an early age are more likely to drop out of school.

Thankfully, we are living in more well-informed and understanding times than ever before. When your parents were under 25 years old, drug education was little more than anti-drug propaganda; a stern talking-to that centred around the ridiculously simple message of ‘don’t do drugs‘. These days, drug awareness campaigns aim to delay the age of first use and reduce harm, rather than scare and stigmatise people. Messaging is evidence-based, and a balance to the worldwide cultural shift towards cannabis liberalisation.

As well as the move towards decriminalisation of cannabis, another more recent phenomenon has been the cultivation of cannabis with dramatically increased levels of THC, meaning that weed has gotten stronger and stronger over time. Forget the heroic stories from Woodstock or the 1960s… today’s weed would knock those hippies for six. As such, we need to update our approach and factor in that weed is now essentially supercharged.

So what are the core propositions of contemporary drug awareness campaigns? Well, for young people who have never tried cannabis but intend to, the main message is to delay this for as long as you can, to protect your developing brain.

For existing users, the hope is to help young people avoid regular or heavy use, which can lead to dependence and additional (often chronic) negative effects. The trick is to make yourself as informed as possible. By taking a rational approach that listens to the science, at the very least you will be more aware of the risks and thus more able to avoid them.

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