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By Kelly Burch

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the summer edition of Renew Magazine 

To see how the attitudes around marijuana have changed over the past decades, you need to look no further than our nation’s leaders.

George H. W. Bush was tough on drugs, shutting down some medical marijuana programs. Bill Clinton admitted to using the drug but said – famously – that he smoked, but never inhaled. George W. Bush managed to avoid the question. And Barack Obama pulled no punches when he said on the campaign trail in 2008, “When I was a kid I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”

With twenty-two states having legalized medical marijuana and two states allowing recreational use, the United States is in the midst of a pot revolution. The president chimed in on the debate again in January, when he said in a New Yorker magazine profile that pot is no less damaging than alcohol.

“As has been well-documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life,” Obama told writer David Remnick. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” 

It’s an argument that comes up frequently in the debate over marijuana legalization and decriminalization. Marijuana remains a schedule 1 drug under federal law, a classification that is reserved for substances with high rates of abuse and no acceptable medical use. However, proponents of pot argue that the drug is natural, and certainly no less damaging than alcohol.

“If we think about the amounts of fallout health-wise, financially and emotionally that alcoholism has, it’s a reality check,” said Maxim Furek, the director of Garden Walk Recovery in Mocanaqua, Penn., who has researched extensively on contemporary drug trends.

While the president’s refrain is a common one, there is simply not the data to support the claim that smoking pot is less harmful than alcohol.

“It would be an uninformed comparison to compare the two [with current data],” said Dr.Ruben Baler, a neuroscientist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “Unfortunately, if marijuana does become legal we will have the data to make the comparison in terms of harm on driving, psychosis and relationship to mental illness.”

Baler said that his organization choses to focus on the devastating affects that marijuana can have on its users, rather than debating whether is it better or worse than another substance.

We tend to concentrate on the personal cost of drug use,” he said. “When you move away from the population into the individual realm, rankings become meaningless.”

As many users have discovered, smoking pot can have a massive impact on an individual’s life. As marijuana is becoming more widely available through the country, perceptions of its danger are falling at the same time that potency levels soar. Research on the drug’s effects show that despite its portrayal as a harmless and natural high, there is growing proof that marijuana is addictive and dangerous in and of itself.

 

THC Levels

At the University of Mississippi, Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, a professor of Pharmaceutics, has the unique task of growing marijuana with the full blessing of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition to the pot that ElSohly grows for research purposes, he is also tasked with the testing the potency of drugs that are seized by the federal government as part of the Marijuana Potency Project.

“Way back in the 1970s the THC content was 1 percent, some years less than that. In the 1980s it increased to 3 or 4 percent and stabilized for a few years,” ElSohly said. “Since the 1990s it has been steadily increasing, and today we have 12 to 15 percent THC, which is an extremely potent product.”

A 2010 report compiled by the researchers at Ole Miss analyzed nearly 50,000 samples of marijuana seized by the government between 1993 and 2008. The report concluded that levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the active ingredient in marijuana – rose from 3.4 percent in 1993 to 8.8 percent in 2008.

ElSohly said that the higher levels of THC content have been achieved through genetic selection – choosing plants with higher potencies – as well as through refining the growing and manufacturing process.

“Today, most of the productions are hydroponic,” he said. “They are giving the plant the nutrients that it needs to produce most THC.”

This is certainly true in Colorado, where a booming market for legal marijuana thrives on packing higher THC levels into products.

“We now sell products over the counter that have 20 percent THC and in edible that may be as high as 50 percent,” said Marvin Ventrell, director of community and alumni relations at Harmony Foundation, a recovery center in Denver. “This is a different drug,” than people were consuming during the baby boomer generation, she said.

With high-potency pot taking up more and more of the market share, the Ole Miss report concludes, “The question now becomes: What are the effects of the availability of high-potency products on cannabis users?”

It’s something that researchers and those in the recovery fields are watching closely. While marijuana users chose higher-powered products to obtain a superior high, others caution that the negative effects of marijuana also increase with THC content.

“As you go up in potency, you can expect more negative adverse consequences because you are hijacking [the brain] with a more potent system. It’s just basic pharmacology,” said Dr. Ruben Baler, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In addition to the health effects, Ventrell and his colleagues at the Harmony Foundation are concerned about what effects more potent pot will have on addiction rates.

“We can assume that addiction rates would go up,” he said. “That 1 to 2 percent [of the population that is susceptible to marijuana addiction] might become much greater.”

Health Effects

In order to understand the concern around increased THC levels, it is important to know how marijuana acts on the body.

When marijuana is consumed – whether it is smoked or eaten – THC enters the bloodstream and acts on brain molecules called cannabinoid receptors, part of the body’s endocannabinoid system, which affects neural communications. The high that smokers feel occurs when the THC affects the receptors controlling pleasure and sensory systems. However, cannabinoid receptors also control memory, concentration and coordination, leading to the difficulties that pot users in these areas.

All those affects are really due to THC hijacking a natural system in the brain,” Baler said.  “Really, the endocannabinoid system is a fine-tuner of brain activity throughout development and beyond. Natural molecules in the brain do this job, and it is a very efficient, very important job. This is why [marijuana] affects so many systems.”

Because of how it affects the brain, marijuana use is particularly concerning for people under the age of 25, whose brain systems are still developing.

People don’t realize that it is a very carefully orchestrated choreography that can be offended by even minor insults,” Baler said.  “All those things that are bad for you are even worse in this phase of development. That is our main concern.”

According to the NIDA, a large, long-term study showed that heavy teen marijuana users lost an average of eight I.Q. points between the ages of 13 and 38, a loss that was not reversed when they stopped smoking pot as adults.

For some, the effects can be much worse. Users who are genetically predisposed to mental illness, are more likely to have a psychotic episode after using pot and the drug worsens the course of the disease, according to the NIDA. Like many of pot’s effects, this is most prevalent in younger users.

Because of the compounded affects on the developing brain, youth stand to be the most at risk as marijuana becomes more available through legalization of medical and recreational use.

 “I’m very concerned about the potential for more marijuana and more powerfully potent marijuana to be getting into the hands of kids,” Ventrell said.

Despite the research about the harm marijuana causes to developing brains, studies show that perception of the dangers of pot is dropping among high school students. Experts expect this to have a drastic effect on marijuana usage.

“This is an area where we do have a lot of data,” Baler said, noting that the NIDA has been studying the relationship between perception of danger and prevalence of use since the mid-1970s. “It is very clear that it’s a mirror image. Every time the perception of harm goes down, use will go up. That is the root of our concern about the policies and cultural trends. If we make a marijuana more available or make a lower perception of harm, we expect that use will go up.”

Last year, an NIDA survey found that 6.5 percent of 12th graders report daily or near-daily marijuana use. More alarmingly, 60 percent of students did not perceiving that regular marijuana use can be harmful. 

“When we ask the attitude questions, like ‘how do you feel about someone how smokes?’ answers are more permissive,” said Furek, who is not associated with the NIDA study. “Just because someone smokes it doesn’t hold the same negative connotations that it did. There is more acceptance and a mainstream mentality.”

In Colorado, attractive packaging and marketing of edible marijuana products like gummy bears and lollipops further diminish the perception of pot’s dangers.

“We’re seeing packaging and advertising that has a great potential to change in the wrong way young people’s view of marijuana,” Ventrell said. “Adults like those things, but c’mon...”

NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow said that teens need to be more educated about the risk of using pot.  

“It is important to alert the public that using marijuana in the teen years brings health, social, and academic risk,” she said. “Physicians in particular can play a role in conveying to families that early marijuana use can interfere with crucial social and developmental milestones and can impair cognitive development.”

Furek believes that if the country continues to move toward more acceptance of marijuana, attitudes toward the drug – and thus the perceptions of its dangers – are likely to continue to change.

“As more and more states come aboard it tends to be a green light for a lot of these folks,” he said. “We’re going to have some problems ahead.”

Addicted to Pot

“You can’t get addicted to pot!”

It’s a common refrain from marijuana smokers.  However, the research shows that this simply is not true.

“The THC in marijuana acts same way as cocaine,” Baler said. “Eventually it impacts the same reward and habituation circuit. That’s why in a percentage of the cases it can be addictive.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent, with about 1 in 6 teen users becoming addicted. By comparison, about 15 percent of drinkers and 25 percent of nicotine users will become addicted, according to Baler.

“Any drug that impacts  - directly or indirectly - the dopamine system has the potential to be reinforcing drug, which means that it causes the habituation circuitry in the brain to be active in a way that teaches brain to want more and to keep using the drug,” Baler explained.

The dopamine system is designed to make behaviors with evolutionary benefits – like eating, caring for young, and having sex – pleasurable.  However, drug use can skew the system to react to harmful behaviors.

“Unfortunately drugs hijack that system and now the brain conditions itself to use the drug itself instead of natural rewards,” Baler said.

The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that marijuana users make up 18 percent of people entering drug treatment programs, and 61 percent of people younger than 15 years old in treatment reported that marijuana was their primary drug.

Ventrell said that with increased potencies, Harmony Center is keeping an eye out for an increase in people reporting marijuana as their primary drug of choice.  The center is also working to educate its patients about all the risks associated with marijuana.

“Marijuana is the number one gateway to relapse in our treatment center,” he said.  “Legalization is a really bad idea for drug addicts, whether they are using or are in recovery.”

Ventrell also touched on the so-called “marijuana maintenance program” that some people in recovery abide by. Because marijuana is perceived as safer than alternatives, some addicts will give up their drug of choice in favor of pot.

“They will stop drinking and continue smoking marijuana because it doesn’t seem that bad,” he said. “What we know from good recovery is that doesn’t work. Ultimately you will relapse into your drug of choice.”

Going Forward

It’s easy to romanticize marijuana, harking back to the days of free love and peaceful protests. Even marijuana’s street names – hash, herb and bud – make it sound like a natural way to get high.

However, with the country on the verge of making marijuana as widely available as alcohol, it is important to consider all the health and social implications that this change would cause. Marijuana today is not your dad’s garden-variety pot, but a highly cultivated drug with real effects on brain development.

For people who live and work in Washington and Colorado, being at the forefront of the marijuana experiment is terrifying.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Ventrell said. “I wish it was someone else’s state. I think it was a bad idea because we don’t have enough info to know if it will work or not. “

Now, he said, those states have an obligation to compile research so that the rest of the nation can make better-informed decisions regarding marijuana.

“I really think that it’s critical that we recognize the inherent danger here, but that we accurately state reality,” he said. “We need scientific studies and not assumptions. We hurt ourselves by misusing information or becoming political. We need to be fair to all of the arguments and allow all the arguments to take place in order to serve the country and the addicted populations.“

Furek, of Garden Walk Recovery, agreed that the country needs to see data about the legalization in Washington and Colorado.

“I don’t know how this experiment is working out,” he said. “We need more information. The facts aren’t in. “

However, with his experience researching drug culture and working in recovery, Furek hopes that Washington and Colorado are not setting the rest of the country on course for legalization.

“I think that’s going to open up Pandora’s box and we’re not going to be able to put it back.”

 

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