The worrisome behavior signs were starting to build for Becky. Her daughter was suddenly disrespectful, mouthy, breaking the rules, and definitely displaying more “attitude” at home. This West Fargo parent says her “mom radar” was going off. But Becky had no real proof her teenage daughter was using illicit drugs. It wasn’t until her older son made a troubled call to Becky while she was away on business that the evidence became irrefutable. Becky’s daughter was using marijuana.
Some people—many people—perhaps, will read that last sentence and think, “Oooohhhh, not the dreaded marijuana,” and laugh it off as an overreaction by a super-sensitive segment of ignorant society. Sergeant Mike Erbes, Fargo Police Department, says, “Many people in the community are likely to say, it’s just marijuana, but the truth remains, it is an illegal substance with harmful consequences.”
An increasing number of adults and teens believe marijuana is innocuous. The latest Pew Research Center poll shows 53 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. In a Minnesota Department of Health study, the perceived risk, by youth, from regularly using marijuana has continued a steep decline since the mid-2000s. In North Dakota’s latest Youth Behavior Risk Survey, 15.9 percent of students (grades 9 through 12) had used marijuana one or more times in the last 30 days. It is the most often used illegal drug in the United States.
Across the country, 23 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Colorado, and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use.
It seems every time you turn around another state is legalizing marijuana. In fact, industry leaders suggest within the next five to 10 years, marijuana will be a legal substance nationwide. As we progress into a time where what was once illegal becomes legal, how do we guide our children?
As with so many things, the key is education. Learn all you can about marijuana so you can initiate insightful, factual, and persuasive conversations with your kids.
Marijuana is a green, gray, or brown combination of leaves, flowers, and other parts of the hemp plant—Cannabis sativa. It has a laundry list of street names including pot, weed, grass, dope, bud, blunt, hash, joint, mary jane, MJ, smoke, and wax.
Typically, marijuana is smoked in a cigarette-like form called a joint, or smoked in a pipe or water pipe called a bong. Some people mix marijuana into food or brew it as a tea. Others cut open a cigar and remove some of the tobacco and replace it with marijuana. This is referred to as a blunt. Marijuana can also be vaporized and is available in highly concentrated forms like wax, hash, and oil.
All marijuana contains the mind-altering chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In addition to THC, there are approximately 400 other chemicals found in the cannabis plant.
Parents need to realize this is not the pot of the past. “In the olden days, marijuana in our area used to be referred to as Mexican ditch weed,” says Erbes. “It was actually grown in ditches in Mexico, harvested, and then forced into bricks in a trash compactor.” According to Erbes, much of the marijuana currently in the Fargo area is a fresher product coming from Colorado and Washington state.
“Marijuana users in previous years were likely smoking the leaves of the plant,” says Sheena Williams, LAC, an adolescent outpatient counselor with Drake Counseling Services in Fargo. “Marijuana users today are likely smoking the bud or flowering top of the plant, which is more potent.”
Carol Falkowski, CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues, is considered one of Minnesota’s foremost experts on drug abuse. “In the 1960s it was less than five percent THC, whereas now, standard grade marijuana is 12 percent to 20 percent THC,” says Falkowski. “In addition, there are new forms of marijuana including wax (80 to100 percent THC), butane hash oil (50 percent THC), and synthetic marijuana with unpredictable ingredients.”
Damaging to developing brains
Research concludes that marijuana use affects brain development. This is especially critical for teenagers, considering the human brain is not fully developed until young adulthood. When marijuana use begins in the teen years, the drug may diminish memory, thinking, and learning skills and may impede how the brain actually forms necessary connections to perform these functions. One study from 2012 indicated that people who were heavy marijuana users as teens and continued to use into adulthood had an IQ drop of as much as eight points.
Officer Jeff Nelson, Moorhead Police, has been a school resource officer for 15 years. “Kids should know marijuana greatly diminishes memory—it’s bad for young brains.” Nelson relayed his encounter with a college student who had clearly used a large quantity of marijuana. “The student’s roommate had called 911 when he found his friend and thought he was comatose. Fire and police arrived. We got the student to wake up and started questioning him. He kept asking us who had let us into his apartment. We’d ask him how much he’d had to smoke. He’d answer and then ask, ‘Who let you into the apartment?’ We’d ask him something else. He’d answer and then ask, ‘Who let you into the apartment?’ The young man wasn’t trying to be cocky or argumentative or anything like that. He honestly did not remember asking the question.”
Because marijuana stays in your system for weeks, the loss of memory and the inability to think clearly lasts long past the time when you look and feel under the influence.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse outlines some of marijuana’s short-term effects:
- Euphoria (high). THC stimulates brain cells to release the chemical dopamine.
- Memory impairment. THC alters how information is processed; regular use can affect learning skills and academic achievement, including short-term memory and complex tasks requiring concentration.
- Adverse mental reactions in some. These include anxiety, fear, distrust, or panic—particularly in new users or those taking it in a strange setting; some may experience psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and loss of the sense of personal identity.
Tonya Sorenson has 18 years’ experience working with teens and substance abuse and is currently Director of Chemical Dependency Services at Prairie St. John’s in Fargo. “Marijuana affects your brain and cognition. Remember, your brain is still developing into your 20s; why take the risk with your future?” says Sorenson.
Repeated use of marijuana can lead to addiction. Research indicates the younger you start using the drug, the more likely you are to become addicted. In general, one in 11 people who use marijuana will become addicted; that increases to one in six if kids start using pot in their teens.
Patti Senn, Clinical Director of First Step Recovery at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo, clarifies the term addiction. “One of the 11 criteria used to determine if a person has a Substance Use Disorder is withdrawal, where a person experiences physical withdrawal if they stop regular use of a substance.” Senn explains that marijuana slowly leaves the body, and frequent marijuana users may encounter withdrawal symptoms including irritability, anxiety, mood and sleep difficulties, cravings, and overall restlessness. Marijuana metabolites can remain in your system for up to a month for regular users.
“A broader interpretation of addiction is the continued use of a substance despite adverse consequences,” says Senn.
“First-time users perceive the high as a positive effect; this encourages them to use again. Over time, their use progresses as their tolerance increases,” says Williams. “When adolescents continue to use marijuana compulsively, despite the negative consequences it’s creating in their lives, they are addicted.”
Nelson sees students using marijuana lose interest in day-to-day activities like biking, baseball, family get-togethers, things that bring pleasure to most people. “Their focus becomes all about marijuana,” says Nelson.
Becky will tell you marijuana is addictive. Her daughter went through months of chemical dependency treatment and, like for most addicts, it is a daily struggle. She has had to alter her social habits and leave behind many people she considered friends to maintain a sober life.
Falkowski says, “The younger kids are when they start using, the more likely they will get addicted. Being addicted is a horrible thing that lasts a lifetime.” Sorenson agrees, “I have seen this throughout my career; a young person starting with me in treatment and meeting up with them, again, in adulthood.”
Gateway to other drugs
People gravitate to those who have similar interests. If a young person is hanging out with other teens smoking pot, chances are, someone in the group is using other drugs. “I have seen a lot of kids who start with THC and alcohol and then explore other chemicals—pain pills, acid, mushrooms, meth, heroin, etc.,” says Sorenson.
Studies seem to indicate that while marijuana itself doesn’t necessarily lead to the use of harder drugs, those using harder drugs always include marijuana among the list of drugs they’ve used. Becky says her daughter started with marijuana and, over time, tried alcohol and many other drugs, including meth.
Falkowski doesn’t mince words when asked if marijuana is a gateway drug and says, “I have yet to meet a heroin or cocaine or meth addict who did not also use marijuana.”
Experts agree the single most troubling consequence of legalizing marijuana, whether for medical purposes or for recreational use, is an increase in access. Falkowski points out that in states with medical marijuana and recreational marijuana laws, use among young people has increased. Medical dispensaries are the drug source for one-third of the marijuana-using youth—six percent have their own cards for medical marijuana dispensaries.
Senn believes legalization of marijuana will lead to increased prevalence of the drug, and says it will also give young people “the sense that marijuana use is harmless, and they will be more likely to use it.”
As individual states go through the process of legalization, information blitzes take over and the public gets barraged with messages. “Media campaigns for legalizing marijuana often glorify the benefits of using, while completely neglecting to inform the public of any negative aspects,” says Williams.
Becky has personally witnessed what marijuana use can do to young people and is, understandably, against legalization. “Marijuana is more harmful than people think. We just don’t know all there is to know about all the chemicals involved and their effects on the body.”
Officer Nelson points to another concern of legalization: Young people will see marijuana use as OK; with medical marijuana legalization, they may consider it a “healthier” alternative to alcohol.
Start the conversation
Falkowski’s advice to parents is talk early, talk often. “Make the message about drug use fit the maturity level of the child. Let your kids know you know about today’s drugs and if they get into trouble you’ll be there for them. There is no immunity to drugs or alcohol problems, regardless of where you live.”
Communication is critical. Becky implores parents to start young and not to be afraid to introduce the topic. If you start early enough, you are the one who gets to lay the foundation of facts and information the kids carry with them.
Falkowski reminds parents to listen and not lecture. Experts from Colorado say it’s more effective to explain to young people how marijuana use can limit their future opportunities—such as obtaining or keeping a driver’s license or graduating—than to go on and on about how it can damage their health. Most teenagers feel invincible when it comes to health.
Many parents wonder if they should tell kids about their own marijuana use. Williams acknowledges parents know their children best and should use their own judgment to determine when to talk about drug use. “The conversation can be used as a lesson in which parents can share what they learned about substance use,” says Williams. But, she cautions, “Avoid any comments that glorify substance use.”
Sorenson encourages parents to consider if their drug use is relevant. “We don’t want to give kids the impression that it is fun, everyone does it, etc. Drugs are not the same as when we were growing up.”
Becky is a resilient mother who has had her share of “tough love” moments as she’s helped her troubled daughter through difficult days. She has some insightful advice for talking to your kids about marijuana. “It’s not just what you tell them, it’s how you are expressing support for them as a person. You need to initiate conversations, not to lecture them and tell them what not to do, but just to open dialogues. They need to know they can talk to you about anything, anytime—and that you’ll always be there for them.”
Not since prohibition was repealed in 1933 have American parents struggled with how to educate children about a substance that transitioned from illegal to legal status. Even though the decriminalization of marijuana has yet to occur in North Dakota and Minnesota, prepare yourself and your children for what many see as inevitable.
Kelly Lynch is the editor-in-chief of The Village Family Magazine. Send comments to her at magazine@TheVillageFamily.org.
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