Smoking cannabis is on the rise among schoolchildren in France with 38% of 15-16 year olds admitting having tried it and a hefty 47% of seventeen year olds, according to the latest government figures (2011).
While those of us who may or may not have partaken in our own student days might feel that he odd puff is not that serious, there are two worrying factors.
Firstly, the age at which kids are trying cannabis is getting younger – it is no longer uncommon to find children as young as 12 and 13 trying or regularly using cannabis. Secondly, the stuff they are smoking nowadays is way stronger than anything that was around in ‘our day’ – a warning confirmed by two fifty-somethings who still enjoy the odd joint.
‘I smoked some recently and was in the gutter. I felt really sick,’ says one.
‘This is nothing like the stuff we used to smoke, it is really, really strong,’ says the other. ‘I would be worried about my kids trying it.’
'Yet cannabis is still seen as a soft drug, and schoolchildren are much more likely to have tried this than drugs such as heroin or cocaine,’ says education psychologist Maria Poblete, author of Cannabis: aider mon ado a s’en sortir (Cannabis: helping my teenager to give up).
‘Children try it for the usual reasons: to fit in with their friends, because they like taking risks, the thrill of the forbidden,’ Poblete told l’Etudiant. ‘At 15, you want to be accepted by the group. Cannabis is part of adolescent culture and usage generally starts with a joint being passed round a group of friends. One tries it and says ‘wow, this is cool’ then the next one tries and says ‘it’s not bad, I might try some more’ and the third says ‘this is great’ because he finds it cheers him up.’
‘They will try again and carry on using because they find it helps them overcome shyness or calms their anxieties.
‘But starting to smoke cannabis before 15 is madness,’ says Poblete. 'You can ruin your studies - and thus your whole future. And there is no profile of the typical cannabis user – it could be any child.’
Indeed, in the UK, as well as in France, there is a noted increase in the number of young users among white, middle-class boys destined to get straight ‘A’s until dependency took hold.
Poblete followed 13 young cannabis users over a period of eight months in order to write her book. ‘The one common factor,’ she says, ‘is a serious lack of communication between parents and children. Once their kids become adolescents, parents tend to talk to them less than they did when they were children and when they do talk to them it is mostly about schoolwork and results.
‘However, I am not blaming parents,’ she adds. ‘Parents are not responsible for their child’s addiction which may have several causes. But they are part of the solution.
Common signs of regular use
Firstly, parents need to be on the look-out for tell-tale signs such as unexpected hunger pangs, red eyes and mood changes. ‘If your teenager starts shutting himself away for longer than usual, you should also be concerned,’ says Poblete. 'At 15, children need the company of others to develop so try not to worry about them mixing with ‘undesirable’ types as too much solitude is even worse than an over-active social life.’
If you do find out your teen is using cannabis: don’t get angry and start shouting. ‘Absolutely avoid threats like ‘you’re an addict, you’re going to rehab, prison or whatever’ unless you want to break off all communication with your child,' counsels Poblete.
‘You need to talk to them, ask questions like ‘what do you think about your smoking?' ' Do you have a problem?' ' How long have you been smoking?' ' When do you smoke?'
'Don’t start exaggerating, saying ‘you’re going to die’. Teenagers know the risks and if you start telling them they are going to die you will lose all credibility in their eyes which is totally counter-productive if you want to help them.
'Nor is punishing them particularly helpful. Much better to trust them and say ‘OK, you smoke dope. But we’ll sort it out.’
What they need most at this point is parents to be strong for them, says Poblete. 'If they admit they have a problem, book an appointment with a specialist and go with them to the appointment. If they deny it, but you are sure they are smoking, see a specialist yourself to get advice on how to bring your child along to a consultation.
Above all, don’t blame yourself – it is normal for a parent to feel bad when their child goes off the rails but it is best to stay strong and move forward.’
If you are in touch with a psychologist or psychiatrist you could make an appointment with them, or ask your GP for a referral.
There are also 250 centres across France where young users, and/or their families, can go for advice (anaonymously if you want). Find your nearest centre here: http://www.drogues.gouv.fr/etre-aide/lieux-daccueil/consultations-jeunes-consommateurs/
by clicking on the map.
You can also download useful leaflets, for teenagers and parents, free (in French) here: http://www.drogues.gouv.fr/etre-aide/agir-ou-reagir/documents-utiles/selection-doutils-a-destination-des-parents/
Or call the helpline écoute cannabis : 0.8188.8.131.52
CANNABIS AND THE LAW:
Teenagers caught smoking cannabis by the gendarmes will be arrested and, if they are minors (under 18) their parents will be informed and called to the station to collect them.
Prosecution/punishment is then a matter of circumstances and up to the discretion of the arresting officers.
A child caught smoking but who has no drugs on him/her (although it is more often him) will probably just be cautioned. One who has drugs, bongs etc. on them or is deemed to be the supplier may be called up in front of the court where they could face a fine and/or obligatory counseling sessions.
A repeat offender or a teenager with a large amount of illegal substances on them could well face a prison term, probably around 6 months.