High functioning: How students self-medicate with weed

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While self-medicating with weed can help students make it through the day, the practice can be difficult to control. Words by Larry Heng, Reporting by Catherine Abes

Content warning: This article discusses substance dependency and mental health.

I

remember laying down on the cold granite by the water bordering my campsite in Algonquin Provincial Park. It was the end of April in 2017—there was still snow in some parts of the park where my friends and I failed to start a fire. Defeated, we decided to smoke a joint and call it a night. I listened to Leon Bridges and wrote my thoughts in a notebook using the glow of the moon as I stared into the calmly rolling lake.

If I was still in high school, this would be the perfect place to be ripped out of my mind. But it was cold, we were in the middle of nowhere and that’s when I realized I hated being high.

This moment came after about a year of using recreational weed to subdue the symptoms of my clinical anxiety and depression. When both counselling and upping the dosage of my medication failed me, I turned to cannabis to deal with my mental health. I began by using weed once or twice a week to help with my sleep and appetite. Then, it crept into my daily routine, eventually replacing my 10 mg of prescribed Trintellix with a recreational bong rip instead.

It didn’t feel healthy, but I didn’t consider it substance abuse either. All I knew was that it helped. 

While more studies are needed to determine how effective cannabis is in treating physical and mental illnesses, it can offer an immediate, temporary release for students. However, self-medicating comes with consequences that could outweigh the benefits. 

Geraint Osborne is a professor at the University of Alberta who studies cannabis use and drug policy, in particular focusing on the normalization of cannabis use. In his research, he’s found university students use weed recreationally much in the same way that they use alcohol—for socializing, a reward, relaxation, etc. Some students, however, report self-medicating—meaning using cannabis without a doctor’s prescription—in an effort to cope with stress, anxiety, sleep disorders and other health challenges. 

Results from the National Cannabis Survey showed that in the first half of 2019, approximately three per cent of Canadians aged 15 or older used cannabis for medical purposes with no documentation. 

Additionally, 3.9 per cent of Canadian university students reported using cannabis products daily over a period of 30 days, according to the spring 2019 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II (ACHA-NCHA II) for Canadian schools. The survey, which was distributed to over 55,000 Canadian university students from 58 schools, doesn’t indicate how these students were using weed. 

A study based on the spring 2013 ACHA-NCHA results, which surveyed 33,000 students, found that Indigenous students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions are more likely to experience mental health issues as well as higher rates of cannabis use compared to their non-Indigenous peers.

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ast summer, Lydia Charron developed an after-work ritual. Once her shift ended, she would stop at home, grab a sushi roll from the place across the street, then meet her friend at Riverdale Park. They would sit at the top of the hill, giving them a perfect view of the sunset, eat dinner, then smoke a bowl from her friend’s pipe. 

Charron had only ever smoked weed socially. But as she started smoking more consistently with her friend, she realized just one or two hits would put her into a peaceful state of mind she’d previously struggled to attain. 

“I would be able to recall memories I hadn’t known existed, and in a safe space I was able to calmly talk them through,” she says. “I could see the bigger picture, and reflect on myself.”

Charron, a second-year fashion communications student, was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) last May. She uses weed to help navigate daily tasks that her disability can sometimes cause to feel daunting. She says that sometimes her CPTSD leaves her “paralyzed”—not physically, but in the sense that she’ll enter a state of mind where she’s incapable of doing anything until she “wakes up.” 

When Charron recognizes that she’s entering this state of mind, she can smoke or take benzodiazepine (also known as a tranquilizer), a medication prescribed by her doctor to take as needed. She says they help her “get out of [her] head” so she can move along with her day. 

While her medication and cannabis essentially do the same thing for her, Charron prefers weed. She says she developed an aversion to pills following years of taking medication for chronic migraines. She only takes tranquilizers if she has to go to school or work, because she won’t go to those places high. 

“When you have CPTSD, you’re [at] a very high level of constant hyper-vigilance…like on edge all the time,” Charron says. “[Weed] brings me down from that.” 

Charron says weed allows her to focus on school work as well as ignore the relentless noise of renovation from her upstairs neighbours, which makes it difficult for her to feel comfortable in her home. 

But while weed has proven to be useful for Charron, it’s a habit she keeps to herself. The legalization of cannabis in October 2018 allowed for easier access to the drug, but failed to extinguish the stigma around it.

“I still hold an internal stigma towards self-medication and drug use in general,” she says, adding that being high in public is “very anxiety-inducing.” “I prefer to use [weed] in my own time to avoid the fear that others will be able to notice I’m under the influence.”

Osborne says the more that non-users come into contact with people who use cannabis responsibly, the more normalized it will be in society. He connects responsible cannabis use to harm reduction, defining it as using in moderation, using it safely (not while driving, for example) and not letting it interfere with your responsibilities.

While weed has helped her to be more introspective and work through her thoughts, she warns that it’s important to be mindful and establish boundaries in self-medicating. She plans on quitting weed and seeing how she fares without it. She feels she’s “come full circle,” in the sense that now she’s using weed to avoid her life rather than cope with it. 

“It’s as legitimate of a treatment as anything else,” she says. “But I feel like there’s definitely a risk for escapism. You kind of have to know yourself really well, if you want to intentionally self-medicate.” 

Sarah Lees on the other hand doesn’t plan on quitting weed. The third-year geography student “[doesn’t] trust Big Pharma.” While medical professionals have told her to get a mental health assessment, Lees fears they’ll tell her what she already knows, sending her down a journey through traditional medication.

“I will be sticking to my self-medicating ways until there’s more information from [medical professionals]. I would rather be ‘addicted to weed’ [than be] addicted to prescription drugs.”

Weed gives Lees a chance to lay down, light up and rest uninterrupted. She has encouraged her friends to experiment with pot, only if it doesn’t interfere with their lives. But, “if it works for you, why wouldn’t you?”

Z

ac Snowden was introduced to cannabis during the prime time for freshmen university students to experiment with new things: frosh week. On one of his first nights at Western University, Snowden was offered a joint. But what started off as a recreational puff developed into over a decade of habitual smoking. 

While weed has helped Snowden with social anxiety as well as managing his attention deficit disorder in the past, he doesn’t attribute his cannabis use to any external factors. Over time, it simply became part of the “rhythm” of his everyday life, impacting how he eats and how he sleeps. He got to the point where he was smoking twice daily. 

“Basically, if I’m not supposed to be in class or if I don’t have actual work to do, I’m probably going to try and get stoned.” 

Since starting at Ryerson last fall in the politics and governance program, Snowden has found his relationship with weed to be a hindrance. While he doesn’t go to class stoned, he says weed impacts focus, attention and time management—the three things that most students depend on to be successful. It also took him over a month to adapt to eating breakfast. He had to quit smoking in the morning for class, but without it he struggled to with appetite until the afternoon. Seeing the impact on his body made him see his cannabis use go from responsible to dependent.

At the beginning of March, Snowden quit smoking weed cold turkey. Partially for financial reasons, partially to “detach” from the drug and start a new chapter of his life. 

Snowden has managed to stop smoking for periods in the past, so he’s confident he’ll be able to do it again—“it’s just a matter of maintaining motivation.” 

He says that as weed becomes more accessible—especially on Ryerson campus with Tokyo Smoke down the street from the Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre, Canna Cabana a couple blocks north by College Station and HOBO opening up just across the street—we need to think more about when weed is appropriate and to what extent. 

Osborne stresses that legalization was an important step in working toward safer cannabis use. He says shifting from prohibition to a harm reduction model is more effective in helping people who have dependency issues. 

“We need to…make that distinction between responsible use and misuse, and then develop better policies for dealing with those people who have substance abuse issues,” he says. “We can learn a lot from people who are using responsibly, to find out what’s key to their healthy patterns of use and to pass that on to those who may be struggling.” 

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eed created a sense of detachment from my friends, who were not big pot users and didn’t fully understand what I was going through. I started to feel lonely while simultaneously feeling that the high was only good when I was by myself. I was stuck in a position that isolated me from my social surroundings, which contributed to the eventual downfall of my self-medicating practice.

I officially quit smoking weed toward the end of my first year of university. It felt like weed had boiled down to just a medication to me, and abolished my ability to enjoy it recreationally. The frequency of self-medicating led me to associate the feeling of being high with my mental illness. 

I’ve regained some of my social confidence and disbanded some of the internal stigma. Once the anxiety lessened, so did my need for cannabis. I haven’t touched weed in nearly three years. Though, some nights I wonder what it would feel like if I simply rolled a joint and smoked like how I used to. Would it bring back that therapeutic feeling? Would I still like it? 

I like to imagine that moment by the lake in Algonquin, and try to relive that experience as if I wasn’t high. I probably could’ve seen more of the stars scattered in the sky, and rather than the cynical thoughts echoing in my head, maybe I could have heard the water rolling downstream.

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