Information for this article was retrieved from the Hazelden Center, WebMD.com, Medical News Today, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and S.C. Behavioral Health Association.
As Newberry County’s nonprofit provider of addiction prevention, treatment and recovery services, Westview has an important responsibility, and is uniquely qualified, to comment on the effects of marijuana use, which we see every day among the people we serve.
Over the last few years, the percentage of our clients who were diagnosed with some level of marijuana abuse has been on the rise, to the point that it is significantly more than any other drug but alcohol. And it’s understandable that the numbers are so close, given that the effects of marijuana on the brain are more similar to alcohol than tobacco.
Many people wrongly believe that marijuana is like tobacco since the two are often smoked. Like alcohol though, marijuana can affect your:
• Ability to think and solve problems.
• Reaction time.
We know that the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana is the plant’s main mind-altering ingredient. THC is dangerous to many users and addictive to some, and young people are particularly vulnerable.
The effects of marijuana can be even more serious in young people. “If you’re a young person and you’re using regularly, there’s a whole host of problems that can occur,” says Kevin Hill, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Regular marijuana use during the teen years has been linked to:
• Lower IQ.
• Changes to areas of the brain involved with learning, memory, and attention.
• Anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
• Dropping out of school.
• Worse performance in college.
While the debates over legalization continue, many young people view marijuana as less risky, and not surprisingly, more and more of them are smoking marijuana for the first time. Early use of marijuana is especially troubling. The human brain develops throughout adolescence and well beyond, into the mid-20s. Marijuana use can harm learning, thinking and memory development and can contribute to mental health issues, not to mention medical problems.
“There’s a much higher risk in people whose brains are developing — those 25 and under,” said Hill.
We also know the earlier a young person starts to use any mood and mind altering substance, the greater the possibility of developing addiction. One of the recurring themes we hear from the youth we treat is regret – of wasted time, lost opportunities, squandered talent, impaired memory, reduced performance and disinterest in healthy activities.
So why the hard push for “medical marijuana?”
Scientific study of the chemicals in marijuana, called cannabinoids, has led to FDA-approved medications that contain cannabinoid chemicals in pill form. Continued research may lead to more medications.
First, the FDA must carefully conduct studies (clinical trials) in hundreds to thousands of human subjects to determine the benefits and risks of a possible medication. So far, researchers haven’t conducted enough large-scale clinical trials that show that the benefits of the marijuana plant (as opposed to its cannabinoid ingredients) outweigh its risks in patients it’s meant to treat.
Long-term studies are necessary to ensure we, as a society, don’t go off “half-cocked.” One such instance involves preliminary research that suggested there may be a relationship between medical marijuana and opioid overdoses. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse; however, further studies determined the initial findings to be unsubstantiated.
To further confuse the issue, a cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD) has been found to be useful and does not have the detrimental effects of THC. Unlike THC, CBD is a cannabinoid that doesn’t make people “high.” These drugs aren’t popular for recreational use because they aren’t intoxicating. It may be useful in reducing pain and inflammation, and controlling epileptic seizures.
CBD for legal commercial use is extracted from cannabis plants using a technique that removes the vast majority of THC. In South Carolina, CBD must contain less than .3 percent THC. That’s one-third of one percent. If you are planning to use CBD, be sure to research the specific product/label.
Expanded social acceptance will almost certainly result in more new users, higher frequency of use among established users and increases in marijuana-associated health and social problems. Therefore, Westview encourages you to be an educated community, especially young people and their parents, about the dangers and potentially addictive dynamics of all drugs, including marijuana.
Hugh Gray is the executive director at Westview Behavioral Health Services and can be reached at 803-276-5690.