The Legalization of Marijuana: An Interview with Jan

Marijuana

The use and legalization of marijuana is a hotly debated topic these days. (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

How has the legalization of marijuana in states like Colorado impacted adolescents? 

What I hear from many adolescents  is now that it’s legalized in some states for medicinal purposes and for recreational purposes in two states, there is a perception that it’s safe to use and that there are  no real negative effects of this drug. Though certainly it’s not legalized for children and adolescents, there is still the perceived safety of using marijuana recreationally.

When do you think marijuana use is helpful?

It is definitely indicated for some disorders like chronic pain, glaucoma, and chemotherapy-induced nausea. I think it has its place. And not everyone who uses it is going to get addicted. But I do see the negative effects.

When do you think marijuana use is questionable?

There is very little evidence to support its use for insomnia and other mental health disorders.  In fact, the effect marijuana has on the brain can cause worse problems with anxiety and mood.  It can also be potentially addictive for a small percentage of people who use it. Psychologically, there can be a dependence on smoking pot daily and using it in social situations.

So, it can make symptoms worse for some people?

Yes, some people can have worse anxiety, panic attacks, and even psychotic symptoms like paranoia, delusions and even hallucinations from use.

Are there any dangers to using marijuana over a long period of time?

Chronic marijuana use can have long-term effects on the respiratory system and also decrease immune system function. It can cause difficulty with motivation or volition and memory.  And one of the most concerning things to me is that the rapid frontal lobe development in young adolescents (11-15) can really be impaired by cannabis use at that age.  It can cause potential deficits in brain function into later years and can impair memory and learning capabilities.

How widely is marijuana used by teens?

The latest youth risk survey in Arizona (2011) found that 25% of all 8-12 graders had used marijuana within 30 days of the study.  The incidence of use has  increased over the past 2 years.

It will be interesting to see statistically if the incidence of marijuana use increases as more states legalize it and allow for its recreational use.

What do you hear from parents and their thoughts on marijuana?

Some parents are concerned and some feel marijuana is “no big deal”.  They are more worried about “heavy drugs”.  They may be recreational or habitual users themselves and do not feel there are negative consequences for their teens using as well.

Marijuana has been indicated as a treatment for glaucoma, chronic pain and other conditions, why doesn’t it come in a form that indicates strength, such as a 200 mg tablet like Ibuprofen?

Marijuana is not federally approved. It’s still illegal to possess and sell marijuana according to the federal drug enforcement laws. It is the particular states that have legalized its use on a state by state basis.  The Federal Drug Administration has not tested it because it’s not federally regulated. Prescription, synthetic forms of marijuana are available for things like increasing appetite in people with AIDS.

How does marijuana use impact teens? 

I know of young people who have sleep disturbances due to marijuana use, who have difficulty learning, who have dropped out of school because of lack of motivation. I’ve seen kids with severe psychotic episodes because of marijuana. Others have difficulty keeping a job and experience panic attacks.

As I said before, marijuana use changes the brain. It is lipophilic (“fat loving”) and it accumulates in the fatty white matter of the brain. Since the white matter is 60% of the total brain mass, it can take months for it to clear out of the brain after use is discontinued.  Even after stopping marijuana, you can have residual effects.

Why are teens using marijuana? 

They are using it because they are depressed, or anxious and want to calm down. They may use it to dull effects of past or current trauma. Others are using it because it’s cool or because they think it’s harmless. For many, their friends use it, they try it and like it, and it becomes a major part of their recreation or simply becomes a habit that’s hard to break.

What leads teens who use marijuana to come to Doorways? 

They are coming in because they are depressed, having panic attacks, problems with parents, feeling blah or unmotivated, etc.  the question becomes: Was it the depression (or other mental health issue) that lead to  the marijuana use or did the marijuana use make the depression symptoms worse? 

What is one thing about marijuana use and teens that you want parents to know?

I think parents need to know that marijuana can be harmful to an adolescent’s developing brain and that some of the mood or anxiety symptoms their kids are experiencing could actually be made worse by using it.

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