I’ve looked after a patient of 14 or 15 who had one of the highest blood alcohol levels I’ve seen – he was 0.5 – 10 times the legal limit for driving. When he arrived at hospital he was unconscious and needed a couple of days in ICU attached to a ventilator.
I think the age at which young people begin experimenting with drugs has dropped, and that started with the advent of pills, such as ecstasy, when kids were looking to supplement the pleasurable experience at rave parties. Young people don’t want to take anything that involves a needle, so the proliferation of pills has made drugs more accessible for them. But these pills are not safe. They’re not made by pharmacists and usually have contaminants – other drugs and bulking agents such as starch that may create a reaction.
Synthetic cannabinoids that are around now can raise the heart rate, raise blood pressure and they’re associated with bleeding in the brain. If young people are also drinking alcohol and aren’t drinking a lot of water, then dehydration compounds the effect.
You can never control what the likely effects of drugs are going to be. It’s a major downfall of children experimenting with drugs. They hear from friends that if you take this tablet you will have this experience, but they can actually experience something quite different, something dangerous.
Add a child’s sense of invulnerability – ‘nothing can happen to me’ – and this is a dangerous combination.
We’ve seen people in emergency with very disturbing presentations. Their pulse rate and blood pressure rise and they can become quite paranoid and confused. Parents might notice a child is hallucinating and if they’ve taken a significant amount of drugs they can go from agitated to a comatose state.
We can see more aggression and agitation and we have a code-grey team that is activated when a patient is at risk of harming themselves or others. Most of our code greys are drug-related issues and we have around 50 code greys a day.
A young person’s lungs, heart and kidneys are better able to tolerate drugs than an older person who has heart disease. And if the child doesn’t have an addictive tendency and has a single experimentation with drugs, we’d hopefully see a good outcome.
But there is the problem of recurrent use. There is data that shows you’re more likely to go on to take hard drugs if you start with soft drugs, and chronic drug use brings concerns about long-term brain development and mental health issues.
I used to teach schoolchildren about harm minimisation and my message was if you are going to use drugs, use them responsibly. But I’ve changed that message. I don’t think children can use drugs responsibly and I don’t think there is a safe level of drug-taking behaviour. There is no benefit at all in taking recreational drugs – they won’t make your child’s life any better, but they do bring lots of potential problems.
Professor George Braitberg was interviewed by Sarah Marinos