By Darcy McConnell, M.Ed.
The latest “Monitoring the Future” survey of teenage substance abuse indicates that marijuana abuse is on the rise after two decades of consistent decline. On average about 15% of eighth through 12th grade students have abused one or more illegal drugs in the past month. Fortunately, cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse have declined to the lowest levels in two decades. Many researchers and clinicians in the field attribute this decline to an increase in prevention efforts aimed at tobacco and alcohol specifically targeted toward high school students.
Not surprisingly, the perceived risk of regular marijuana abuse has fallen significantly since 2007 among the above 12-18 year -olds. Sadly, despite nearly thirty years of highly visible anti-drug campaigns, marijuana is till the most commonly abused illegal drug in our country.
It has been my experience working with adolescents that marijuana, although the most widely abused drug, is also the most misunderstood. Common beliefs about regular marijuana abuse include: everybody does it, it helps me relax, it’s natural, it won’t hurt you – doctors prescribe it, lots of parents used it in the 60s and 70s, and it is legal in some states. While it is not an easy task to debunk all these commonly accepted myths about marijuana and restructure a teenager’s perception of this drug, the message has to be consistent. Likewise, parents, your attitudes toward marijuana abuse have to be consistent with what you wish your children to adopt in their own lives.
Unfortunately, for every true fact a teenager is exposed to, there are likely a dozen of his or her peers reinforcing the idea that smoking pot is a perfectly normal part of growing up. In working with young people, education is the key and proven facts do not lie. I often find myself presenting information as if I were back in college proving my theory to a professor by citing all sources and providing hard copies to all interested parties.
When marijuana is smoked, the main ingredient THC is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to all organs, including the brain. It is in the brain where THC targets nerve cells known as cannabinoid receptors. The membranes of these cells contain protein receptors that bind to THC. Many cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that control memory, perception, coordination, time perception, pleasure, and concentration. Not surprisingly, many of these tasks are crucial to the daily functioning of the average teenager and are often areas where signs of marijuana abuse appear first: falling grades, disinterest, forgetfulness, and depressed mood. A vast majority of research exists on the debilitating effects of marijuana on the human brain.
Unlike any other drug, marijuana can remain in the system for up to 28 days. Many teenagers report that they don’t smoke prior to engaging in important activities such as going to school or driving, but they do not understand that the remaining THC in their systems is continuing to affect their brains’ functioning. The changes in brain function in teenagers has been shown to last longer than in adults, perhaps because the teenage brain is still developing.
The United States Drug Enforcement Agency as well as the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics indicates that, on average, marijuana seized today is 10-14 times stronger than it was in the 1960s and 70s. Today marijuana is likely to contain at least one other dangerous chemical like formaldehyde, arsenic, or PCP. While these extra chemicals may exist in trace amounts, their effects can be extremely dangerous.
With “perceived risk” low among teenagers, many try marijuana for the first time and receive a euphoric feeling from the THC reaction in the brain, which leads to them using again. This fabricated “reward” will eventually turn into one craving the drug to the point that other activities alone seem less fun then before. With repeated use one will develop a strong psychological dependence upon marijuana. If not for this process, marijuana abusers would not make up the high percentages of admits into in-patient rehabilitation centers across the United Sates every year.
Research consistently shows that teenagers who smoke pot receive lower grades and are less likely to graduate from high school. Statistics indicate that people who began smoking pot before the age of 18 are far more likely to possess a severe substance abuse issue as an adult. So, PLEASE provide your children and teenagers with the education they deserve so that they may make informed decisions in a society of mistruths and mixed messages. Prevention is all about education and if you do not possess the knowledge to educate your teens, they will seek the information elsewhere. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL YOUR CHILD HAS A PROBLEM TO ADDRESS THIS. This is a problem that is prevalent and destructive..
Darcy McConnell is a therapist at Edmond Family Counseling, Inc. and can be reached at 341-3554.
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