Experts Weigh-In on the Dangers of an Adolescent’s First Toke
It was recently announced that a study tracking the effects of trying marijuana will follow a group of 9- and 10-year-olds over the next ten years to find out whether or not that first hit, and an occasional hit after that, will have any impact on their drug and alcohol use over the course of their adolescent lives. The study was initiated and approved based on the fact that we have yet to medically research the impact of marijuana use on kids who “just try it,” as most of the data we have available studies the effects of pot on the brains of chronic users.
Randall Dwenger, Medical Director at Mountainside Treatment Center, says that the reason pot is often referred to as a “gateway drug” is because it releases dopamine into the developing brain in a way that is out of proportion to more natural “rewards” like eating or exercise.
“Developing brains will continue to seek out this artificial stimulation of dopamine release through continued pot use, using pot in greater quantities to achieve an even greater high, or will try other classes of drugs to achieve that greater release of dopamine,” he said, adding that while not everyone who smokes pot gets addicted, statistically, about 9% of all marijuana users become dependent and 17% of those who start use in adolescence (1 in 6) will become dependent.
“The potency of marijuana is also rising, and risk of adverse reactions like anxiety, paranoid thinking, other mood changes increases with the higher potency formulations, even for first-time users.”
Ten years is a long time to wait, so I sought the opinion of experts with a number of different backgrounds, professional certifications, and perspectives to find out if we might be able to call the results a decade early.
Here’s What They Had to Say
While there is little evidence that directly provides single use of cannabis during adolescence and young adulthood is harmful, there is a significant amount of evidence that it is risky behavior, according to Ryan Potter, MSW, MCAP, ICADC, Director of Clinical Development at Ambrosia Treatment Center.
“There are two main factors in discussing the dangerous and damaging aspects of drug use. The first factor is the actual chemistry and biological impact of the drugs on the developing brain,” he says. “The second factor is psychosocial aspects of beginning illicit drug use”
He continued to note that some of the indirect evidence we have of psychoactive substances impacting brain development has been “pretty clear – not specifically with cannabis, but other drugs.”
“Aside from biological issues, the psychosocial issues of beginning drug use during adolescence is that the experimentation is during a very emotionally challenging time. The increased vulnerability can lead to the lack of development of coping skills. This leads teens to use using substances as a way to deal with issues.”
Lynn R. Zakeri, LCSW, notes that in her experience with adolescent patients, trying weed just once or twice could potentially be harmful because, over time, those kids have given themselves permission to try these substances and have opened themselves up to the possibility of addiction.
“The young people I’ve worked with who have never tried drugs or alcohol don’t have that problem,” she says. “The ones who have never tried are pretty black and white in their thinking. If they move to the gray area of ‘experimenting,’ then trouble can start, especially if they have more addictive tendencies. “
Jaime Gleicher, MSW at Hartstein Psychological Services, works with many adolescents and has seen firsthand that taking even one toke can indeed be harmful if that teenager has a yet-unknown genetic predisposition to addiction, such as a family history, or current psychological or emotional issues, which, she says, most of them do.
“The immediate feel-good effects of any mind-altering substance, including pot, can turn into a learned behavior,” she says. “As young people’s brains are still forming, the ‘relief’ or ‘feeling’ they get from the marijuana can turn into a go-to solution to any pain or discomfort that they are feeling, and can thus lead to problems or addiction down the road.”
Ultimately, she believes it may lead to a search for other mind-altering substances that may give them an equal or greater high.
“In simpler terms, the risk is that the young person likes the pot too much, which can lead to self-medication or an increased desire to experience with other substances that will also provide them with what the pot provides them with,” she says.
Maladaptive Coping and Modern Potency
In Deborah Linehan’s professional opinion, it’s not necessarily harmful for a young person to try weed, or beer, or spend time on social media, or have a candy bar – all of these things are equally unhealthy for the mind when they’re used as a problem-solver. As a certified recovery coach who recently spent a year as an addiction counselor at the New Life Foundation in Thailand, she counseled hundreds of young people in their 20’s dealing with addiction and behavioral issues.
“We have to look at the question of why these kids are reaching for weed, what’s behind the need to alter their consciousness,” she said. “Kids who are in pain seek it out; they are looking for it. There’s no boogeyman behind the school selling drugs out of his van for a kid to say ‘no’ to. Weed can be addictive, chocolate can be addictive, and many other things can if we use them to treat our pain in a maladaptive way.”
How can we nurture healthy coping mechanisms in our children so they learn how to be with all their feelings – pleasant and unpleasant – in a sustainable way?-Helaina Hovitz
Additionally, she continues, we need to focus on the problem not the medicine: how can we nurture healthy coping mechanisms in our children so they learn how to be with all their feelings – pleasant and unpleasant – in a sustainable way?
“If, because there are no other solutions present, the soil may be fertile for a child to create their own solution to deep pain. When there’s a lack of community support or parental involvement to help them identify, unpack, and resolve their feelings, then weed, booze, social media, sex or sugar are going to provide ready-made, quick and effective fixes to move them out of immediate discomfort.”
In short, the substance itself will not be the driver of addiction, it will give them a shot of dopamine, the ‘feel good’ hormone that our body produces when we encounter favorable stimuli, and that is a risky road to head down.
We are, in fact, as Potter previously notes, dealing with more potent pot today than we once were. Lisa Nixon, certified professional recovery coach at Cedars at Cobble Hill Residential Addiction Treatment Centre, points to a study where researchers looked at the ratio of THC to CBD, and found that marijuana in 1995 had a THC level that was 14 times its CBD level. But in 2014, the THC level was 80 times the CBD level.
What that translates to, Nixon explains, is that the mood altering properties of marijuana today are much stronger than they used to be, and people are starting to suffer from marijuana-induced psychosis because of this. Essentially, just because it is “natural” does not mean it is safe.
“It can be dangerous to try once or twice, due to the potency of the marijuana today, and the fact that the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed,” she says. “But the solution isn’t to simply try to stop teens from experimenting. The solution is to provide more education around substance use and abuse, and to have more open and honest conversations within our families and our communities.”
Regardless of what the conclusion of this new study shows us ten years from now, the perspectives we’ve explored here all point to one thing: there is no telling where that first hit may take a young person, and we need to find a way to keep kids informed about the potential risks, since they will experiment if they want to experiment.
And, the earlier adolescents begin use, and the longer their use continues, the higher the degree of risk for structural and functional brain changes, says Dr. Ryan Kaczka, Chief Operating Officer at Spring Gardens Detox. It can impair their brain functionality in areas such as working memory, problem-solving, judgment, planning, and impulsivity control
“Youth are ultimately at a greater risk of vulnerability to addiction than adults. When compared to alcohol and tobacco, marijuana use has the fastest rate of transition to substance use disorder among adolescents,” he said. “If an adolescent can delay the start of their use, or better yet, not use at all, they will have far fewer consequences and will be less likely to develop a substance use disorder.”
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