During my 20-year career of treating adolescents and their families, it has become increasingly obvious
that marijuana is not the natural, benign drug that many of us once believed, or currently accept as fact.
Many well-respected clinicians may say if asked that few adverse effects have been determined. But is that
accurate, considering the latest research?
Having myself performed an average of between two to three hundred assessments per year on adolescents
and their families, most of which have been related to substance abuse problems, it is clear to me that
marijuana and alcohol have led the list of abuse in the 70S, 80S, and 90S; and I wager, will remain on top
into the next century. We have seen clear behavioral patterns with teens that regularly abuse marijuana. I
would define regular as a range of two times per week to six times per day. Today's teens begin using
marijuana at an average age of I3-14 years old. Some behavioral changes are typically seen after 3-6 months
and include: alienation from normal family relationships and activities, loss of interest in school sports and
academics, deterioration of grade performance, truancy, difficulty with task completion, high emotional
reactivity, apathy, abnormal opposition to authority and eventually legal encounters. As use of marijuana
continues, problematic behaviors are exacerbated and subsequently other drugs like LSD, cocaine, crystal
meth and psilocybin are substituted. Everyone shows these problem behaviors, but somehow nobody
really knows what is causing them. It's as subtle as a soft persisting rain that ultimately results in a
devastating mudslide. My colleagues and I have always recognized the danger but haven't had the
scientific support to prove it.
Finally, a research article was presented in the journal, Science, in June 1997, entitled "Marijuana: Harder
than Thought?" This article was a compilation of research that was done in three countries: Italy, Spain and
the United States. The results of these studies could conceivably lay the foundation for new neurochemical
research on marijuana. The study results "demonstrate disturbing similarities between marijuana's effect
on the brain and those produced by highly addictive drugs such as heroine, cocaine, alcohol and nicotine."
The conclusions of this study give overwhelming support for the significance of the neurobiological impact
of marijuana and are consistent with what we have observed clinically in our work with chemical
Is marijuana physically addicting? Many controlled studies say yes, based on marijuana's effect on the
reward and stress systems. Is there withdrawal from marijuana ? Yes. It just looks different from other
types of withdrawal. Most drugs are water-soluble and leave the body within approximately 72 hours.
Marijuana is a fat-soluble substance, and takes months to completely leave the body. It is postulated that
neurotransmitters in the brain are important in a very basic but pervasive manner.
Marijuana appears to have pronounced effects on the brain's neurochemicals: dopamine, seratonin,
acetylcholine and the endorphin system. Dopamine in the "reward center" of the brain has been shown to
have effects similar to heroin. "Dopamine surge" is highly suspected as an effect common to all addicting
drugs. When dopamine reserves are low due to marijuana use, you find little reward in much of anything.
Seratonin effects mood and concentration. When seratonin reserves are low, you feel melancholy and have
disorganized thoughts. When endorphin reserves are low, you are irritable and highly reactive.
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Acetylcholine effects memory. When acetylcholine reserves are low, you can't recall information. All that
seems to matter is "getting high."
An easy analogy would be to think of a sponge full of fluid. When you use marijuana you "squeeze" the
sponge. You can only wring a sponge so many times before, you guessed it, it dries out. When your
dopamine reserves are "dry" you find little reward in much of anything let alone mundane school tasks or
family cheer. When your endorphin reserves are "dry" you are irritable and highly reactive. When your
seratonin levels are compromised your mood and ability to track are compromised. When your
acetylcholine reserves are "dry" you just can't recall information. All that seems to matter is squeezing the
sponge, or "getting high" with the delusion of regaining your first experience and desperately trying to get
back the "sweet wine" that has turned sour.
Recent additional studies have also provided us with information about Marijuana and it's effects. Ifused
before the age of fourteen a young person is two to three times more likely to grow into a career of
addiction and/or alcoholism. Twins studies have shown that if one identical twin uses as a teen he or she
is five times more likely to use other drugs than the identical counterpart. Shedding light that the process
of usage in and of itself causes progression even when the individual is not genetically predetermined. The
adolescent brain is growing and learning. The introduction of "addictive" drugs, including marijuana, can
actually structurally alter our brain development in favor of compulsive usage.
The teen years are very important years for social, emotional and spiritual growth. It's tough enough
without the neurochemical assault of marijuana that with regular use will most probably "drain your
brain." Know the signs and symptoms of substance abuse. Our youth are our future. Let's not let them be
lost in a wasteland of drugs.
Do you suspect a teen using marijuana? Tips for intervention at home or school:
Healthy concern and communication is the most productive approach.
Panic, controlling behaviors and obsessive thinking are reactions to avoid because they can actually
make matters worse, with higher stress levels potentially increasing the chances of co-dependency,
runaways and domestic violence.
Plan for uninterrupted time to express your concerns and to listen.
Ask direct questions in a calm manner, (Do you? Have you ever smoked Marijuana?) You may be
surprised how open the teen will be.
Express your fears.
Let them know that only they can choose to use or not use. Then provide the informational resources
they need to encourage them to make the decision not to use.
Get an assessment at a certified substance abuse facility for teens. An assessment including both
parent and child can be a very beneficial start to solving the problem. Many insurances will cover the
If you suspect a child is using and being dishonest about it, a parent can opt to obtain a urine drug
screen. Urine screens should not be announced in advance. If the child refuses to take a urine screen,
it may be wise for parents to assume drug use and pick up the phone to call for an assessment.
Educate yourselves about marijuana, paraphernalia and other drugs likely to be used by teens.
In a school setting:
When drugs are seen in a student's possession, don't look the other way. Call the police and allow for
natural logical consequences.
Have a school protocol for disciplinary action (e.g., suspension, expulsion).
Don't think you are hurting the child when you take firm legal or disciplinary action. Your
intervention is directing them to the help that they need.
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