North-West University: Legalisation of cannabis has implications for mental healthcare practitioners

Misinformation about cannabis use can have serious implications for people facing mental health challenges. Mental healthcare practitioners can counter this by running education campaigns for vulnerable people, including mental healthcare users and especially the youth.

This recommendation comes from Isaac Mokgaola, an academic in the School of Nursing Science, who recently conducted a study on mental healthcare practitioners’ perspectives on the legalisation of cannabis in South Africa.

His study was supervised by Prof Leepile Sehularo and Prof Emmerentia du Plessis.

Isaac’s research for his second master’s degree revealed five themes related to the legalisation of cannabis. These are the reasons for legalisation, reasons for using cannabis, the impact of legalisation, challenges related to cannabis legalisation, and recommendations to address these challenges.

He recommends that mental healthcare practitioners should inform mental healthcare users and their relatives about lawful and unlawful cannabis use. They should also provide correct information about the medicinal use of cannabis and the health risks associated with cannabis use and/or abuse.

“Practitioners should seek to educate the population most at risk of misinformation about cannabis, particularly mental healthcare users and adolescents.

“An inter-sectoral approach is very important, and health practitioners should also empower other stakeholders such as teachers, traditional and community leaders, as well as South African Police Services (SAPS) personnel, about cannabis and cannabis-related disorders,” says Isaac.

Mental healthcare practitioners should further advise primary health care (PHC) practitioners and family members of people with cannabis-related disorders that can be managed either at home or on PHC-level. This would reduce the strain on mental healthcare institutions.

“Students in nursing, social work, psychology and medicine must also be trained thoroughly on issues of substance legality and substance-related health risks and benefits, to ensure that they are well conversant with this issue when they assume practice,” Isaac says.

In addition, he says the country’s policymakers should ensure the policies they develop are aligned with the Constitution and are able to curb the problematic use of cannabis or any other substance, regardless of whether the substance is legal or not.

“It is not the legal status of a substance that matters, but the manner in which it is used which will ultimately determine whether harm is done to the user,” he says.

Isaac says policymakers must also ensure that the cannabis market is developed in a way that allows small, medium and micro enterprises, and not only big companies, to enter and compete in the market.

“Another challenge for researchers, especially in the North West Province, is to quantitatively measure cannabis use, determine who the users are, how they use it and how much they pay for it,” Isaac says.

“Finally, longitudinal studies are needed to confirm whether or not cannabis use is likely to result in multi-substance use or any other cannabis-related or substance-related disorders.”