Ilustration: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.
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The Fulcrum investigates the effects of recreational drug use on campus

It’s no secret that university students tend to experiment with recreational drugs. According to the Canadian Center for Substance Abuse, alcohol is by far the most common substance used by youth, followed by cannabis and tobacco.

In fact, our youth’s fascination with experimentation is reflected in our popular culture, from the bong hits seen in Everybody Wants Some!! to the “we like to party dancing with molly” line in Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” But what are the effects of the common drugs that students will encounter?

“The student population in general is probably more open to drugs because we are all in that experimental phase,” reflects Zoé, a second-year graduate student at the University of Ottawa who is enrolled in the School of Globalization and International Development.

While on-campus experimentation encompasses a cornucopia of mind-altering substances, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and ecstasy are usually the most familiar to students. If not experienced first-hand, many of us have a friend or acquaintance that uses, or abuses, one of these substances. All four of these substances are generally grouped together as psychotropic drugs, and are often used recreationally.

But is it worth the fun?

Tobacco (snuff, fag, cigar, cigarette)

Tobacco can be consumed by being smoked, chewed, and sniffed, and is very prevalent in student life.

Nafissa Ismail, an assistant professor at the U of O’s School of Psychology, explained in an interview with the Fulcrum that when individuals consume tobacco the active ingredient nicotine makes its way to the brain, where it binds to receptors located in specific regions.

She continued by explaining that nicotine provides a rewarding feeling that draws people in, leaving users feeling calm and relaxed.

“People that tend to be anxious often turn to tobacco to reduce their anxiety and maintain their composure,” added Ismail. She warned that these combined effects can lead to dependency.

Zoé has never wanted to try tobacco because of the “smell, the difficulty in stopping, and the yellow teeth.”

However, she does acknowledge that “tobacco does help with stress, and there is a big social aspect. A lot of people like to take a smoke break together. It is a way to socialize.”

She also adds that “it looks cool. All the movies show us that the badass characters smoke.”

Anassi, a third-year undergraduate student in lettres françaises at the U of O, admits that even though he smokes occasionally, he still thinks that “cigarettes are a disgraceful way of smoking tobacco. It’s cheap, dirty, and not good for you.”

He does see tobacco as important aspect of certain cultures and ceremonies, especially to Aboriginal peoples who have a long cultural history with tobacco, using its smoke for their ceremonies long before Europeans came to Canada.

“I was with some First Nations people and we were sitting around the fire, there was sharing circle, and there was peace pipe going around, I’m totally down for that.”

Overall, Anassi believes that tobacco “makes you weaker, it drains your chi, makes your body sick,” yet he will concede it can suppress anxiety.

Dependant individuals that try to quit can face withdrawal and, according to Ismail, face symptoms such as being excessively aggressive and anxious.

“Wanting to avoid these feelings sends them back to nicotine,” Ismail said. “It may help with anxiety, but leads to dependency.”

Other well-known, long-term side effects of tobacco are lung cancer and throat cancer.

Ismail also added that, later in life, children exposed to tobacco can have issues with mental retardation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia.

Alcohol (hard Stuff, sauce, hooch, suds, booze)

Coming back to the the Canadian Center for Substance Abuse, their study mentions that when it comes to alcohol, “over 40 per cent of 15–19 year olds have binged at least once in the past year, and more than a quarter of drinkers aged 12–19 have binged 12 or more times in the past year.”

“Alcohol usually starts in a social setting,” said Ismail. “People usually get influenced at a party by their friends who are drinking. They want to fit in.” 

Individuals usually consume alcohol to reduce anxiety, yet Ismail said that chronic use can have the opposite effect.

“Often we see that it is people with low self-esteem that resort to chronic use of alcohol.”

Ismail mentioned that “alcohol consumption can lead to aggressivity and impulsivity. Men tend to abuse it more and become more dependent.”

“There is a huge risk for alcohol use during pregnancy. It has caused mental retardation, malformation of the brain, ADHD, schizophrenia, and malformation of facial features.”

For teens and young adults, Ismail said “we see that binge drinking during adolescence predisposes individuals to increased adult drinking, social anxiety, cognitive dysfunction, and sleep problems later on.’’

“Individuals that binge drink during adolescence don’t show as much neurogenesis, or renewal and replacement of dying neurons.”

That said, Ismail was quick to point out that “we have to keep in mind that here we are dealing with chronic binge drinking.”

Anassi considers himself a light drinker, and mostly limits his consumption to wine at family events.

When asked why he refrains from binge drinking he responds that “Alcohol is poisonous to the body. It makes you feel high, but it damages your body a lot.”

He continued to explain that “(he strives) for higher states of consciousness, and alcohol holds you down.”

Zoé enjoys a drink or two in social settings, and says that she enjoys the taste and the colour of cocktails.

“I never get too drunk, but it makes me lighter. It’s easier to laugh and feel free.”

Marijuana (pot, tea, grass, ganja, dope, Mary Jane)

Marijuana has risen in use, and may possibly be legalized in the Canada in the near future. But how does it act on the body?

Ismail explained that marijuana binds to receptors in the brain and “provides a feeling of calmness and composure—some people even experience better concentration under the influence.”

She warned that research has found that consumption of marijuana in adolescence alters the brain significantly. She noted that “it changes the morphology of the brain, there is a thinning of the cortex,” which is associated with cognitive decline and dementia.

While psychologists do not understand the effects of marijuana completely, Ismail is confident in saying that that “it changes the way the brain functions. It alters the way that the parts of the brain are going to interact with one another.”

“We don’t know the exact implication, but we can assume a smaller cortex, this can lead to less executive functioning, and decision-making.”

However, marijuana for medical purposes has shown to have numerous benefits on various illnesses such as glaucoma, epileptic seizures, Dravet syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety. It can also enable a healthier bodily response to sugar, aid in medical treatment of Hepatitis C, alleviate symptoms of Lupus and Crohn’s disease, reduce pain and tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease, treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and prevent cancer from spreading.

So, what draws students to marijuana?

Anassi believes that it “changes your perspective.”

“You see things in a new light. It allows the brain to operate in a different way, and you have a new view on what you thought you knew,” he said. “Ganja is a tool. I won’t take ganja when I have to rush around, when I have a lot of things to do, but I will smoke ganja when my friends and I are making music, and just expressing ourselves, or late at night and do yoga and meditate and feel my body.”

Zoé does not see the appeal of marijuana, and says that she has not really encountered it on or off campus. She also adds that when her friends have smoked she was not a big fan of “the smell, the coughing, and the general stupidity of people that are high.”

Ecstasy (MDMA, E, X, molly, methylenedioxymethamphetamine)

Ismail said that “when you consume MDMA, there is an increase in cortisol and oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is involved in bonding and social abilities, and cortisol is a hormone that is involved in stress, but also in excitement.”

She explains that “individuals are drawn towards ecstasy because they feel they form better and stronger social relations. However, this is only true at the acute level. When used chronically it actually has the opposite effect.”

Ismail warned that the long-term use of ecstasy will have a substantial impact on your ability to deal with stress on a day to day basis.

“We see an exaggerated response to particular stressors, which can lead to the development of anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders.”

Ismail added that Individuals that consume ecstasy display deregulated levels of cortisol and have issues with insomnia at night.

Anassi has experimented with ecstasy and describes the experience as “being extremely overjoyed, feeling and loving everything, getting really deep down with your emotions, really feeling connected with people, and really feeling a connection with music.”

But he adds that the comedown can be as extreme if not worse, “you really have this hollow feeling, like, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to survive this?’”

Zoé admits she has never done ecstasy, and would not even know where to find some. She comments that “it’s something that you are not supposed to do, which has more risk attached to it.”

To experiment, or not to experiment?

In the last decade or so, Zoé has noticed that “a lot of information about drugs has emerged. Our generation is more informed than our parents or grandparents.”

Yet with substances like alcohol, Ismail mentioned that education is lacking at the level of teenagers.

“They are not given access to information that would lead them to make the right choices. As a teenager you are thinking more of the present effects, you don’t really worry so much about how it will alter your brain once you are an adult, and the impact it will have on your ability to perform certain cognitive tasks.”

For Ismail things are pretty clear.

“When you finally see these chronic, long-term effects, it is usually too late to just say I’m going to stop taking these substances.”

But she warned that “there is no formula that says this much per week is okay, but that if it reaches this much per week it is problematic. It is up to the individual to monitor their consumption.”

As word of caution, she added that “the effects that we do know are very dramatic. People that do decide to consume should educate themselves really well beforehand, and not get influenced by peers. We are responsible for our own brains and our own bodies and we need to protect them.”

Anassi is much more enthusiastic towards drug use, and his advice is to give experimentation a shot.

But he does note that it must be done within reason. “Don’t make a crutch out of it. Do it to see what’s on the other side, and come back and apply it to your everyday life.”

In closing, he added that “sobriety is a blessed, beautiful, and divine state of being, truly.”

Those looking for help with dependency and addiction can consult the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, uOttawa Health Services, or Ottawa Area Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous.