Marijuana has been around for a long time. Why all the hype now?

The laws from state to state governing the use of marijuana are undergoing a wave of re-evaluation and change. About half of our states have attempted ballot measures to legalize or decriminalize the drug in the past year.  Some states have already opted to legalize marijuana for recreational use; others have approved its use for medical purposes only, with varying degrees of regulation.  The debate, and research, continue on whether or not marijuana has efficacy as a treatment for certain diseases.

Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the primary components of cannabis—the marijuana plant—and scientists have found the plant preserved in ancient graves, indicating its use goes back 2500 years or more.    THC is the psychoactive component that makes the user “high.” CBD is non-psychoactive and not intoxicating. Both chemicals are currently under scrutiny by the medical and pharmaceutical communities for their potential therapeutic value in the treatment of pain and some debilitating disorders.

Meanwhile, the perception of harm in the use of marijuana has fallen significantly in the past few years.  “How can this be bad if it is being prescribed by doctors?”  When perception of harm decreases, use of a substance usually increases.  While the federal government continues to officially view marijuana as a controlled substance (like heroin), it has taken no action against the states that have legalized its use as a recreational drug. It is being sold in those states, and in easy-access neighboring states, as “kid food” items like “Pot Tarts” and cannabis cotton candy with brand-deceptive or youth-oriented packaging.  The construction of a major industry—the next “big tobacco” according to S.A.M.—is in the works, and it is targeting our children, because like the tobacco and alcohol trades, a long-term, heavy user yields higher profits over a longer span than a casual, occasional one.

Is marijuana legal in New York?

Other than as an approved medical treatment, possessing or distributing marijuana in New York is against the law.  Severity of the charge can range from a violation or misdemeanor to a felony involving jail time, depending on how much of the drug is involved, to whom it was distributed, and the number of prior offenses.  Use this link for an overview of New York’s current marijuana laws, and the penalties involved.

Use this link to learn more about New York State’s medical marijuana program.

 

Is marijuana harmful?

Because marijuana impairs short-term memory and judgment and distorts perception, it can impair performance in school or at work and make it dangerous to drive an automobile. It also affects brain systems that are still maturing through young adulthood, so regular use by teens may have a negative and long-lasting effect on their cognitive development, putting them at a competitive disadvantage and possibly interfering with their well-being in other ways.

The June 5, 2014 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine published an article on the “Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use” that reviewed the scientific evidence on the health effects of the recreational use of marijuana, citing 77 scientific studies, surveys and reviews conducted in multiple countries between 1971 and 2014. In addition to the effects noted above, the authors cited evidence that in high doses, marijuana can bring on paranoia and psychosis.  Some studies have indicated that heavy use is accompanied by Increased risk of chronic psychosis disorders (including schizophrenia) in persons with a predisposition to such disorders. Other effects of long-term or heavy use included addiction, altered brain development, and poor educational outcomes, with increased likelihood that the user would drop out of school. These effects were strongly associated with initial marijuana use early in adolescence. Diminished life satisfaction and achievement, as well as symptoms of chronic bronchitis were also findings in specific studies of long-term, early, or heavy use.

Is marijuana addictive?

Contrary to popular belief, yes, it is. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. As with other intoxicating substances, the brain develops tolerance to cannabinoids with repeated use, and over time, the amount used must increase to achieve the same level of “high.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), research suggests that 30 percent of marijuana users may develop some degree of problem use, which can lead to dependence and in severe cases takes the form of addiction. Dependence becomes addiction when the person can’t stop using marijuana even though it interferes with his or her daily life. (Learn about the science of addiction from NIDA.) Addiction occurs in about 9% of marijuana users overall, including 17% of those who begin use in adolescence, and 25 to 50% of those who are daily users.  As with other substances, the earlier the onset of use, the greater the likelihood of developing a substance-use disorder.

A distinctive marijuana withdrawal syndrome has been identified that includes restlessness, irritability, mild agitation, cravings, aggressiveness, insomnia, sleep disturbance, nausea, and cramping.  One government evaluation characterized marijuana withdrawal as “mild” and “short-lived” when compared to withdrawal from drugs such as opioids, but marijuana addiction is often chronic and hard to treat.  Recidivism for dependence on this drug is high.  According to an article published by NIDA, out of those who do complete a treatment program, only half stay clean within the following year.

Isn’t marijuana a benign drug compared to heroin, cocaine, or even alcohol?

Today’s more powerful version of marijuana has led to intensified problems related to its use, including greater susceptibility to dependence on it. Marijuana is now four to ten times more potent, delivering much more THC than the “weed” smoked at the first Woodstock. Also, the ways in which the drug is used have changed.  Smoking it in hand-rolled cigarettes (joints), hollowed-out cigars (blunts), and water pipes (bongs), is sharing popularity with smoking “dabs” (THC-rich resins extracted from the marijuana plant) that deliver large amounts of the psychoactive component to users in forms known as “shatter,” “budder,” and “honey oil.”  Preparing these extracts can be a dangerous procedure on its own.  Vaporizing (similar to an e-cigarette) has become a popular method of use to avoid inhaling smoke.  With legalization, “edibles” are more commonly available now and, like dabbing, increase the chances of over-intoxification due to the time required to metabolize the drug.  One can ingest too much before ever feeling its effects.  Though it is true that it’s more difficult to overdose on cannabis than other drugs, it is not impossible; some users have needed the emergency room. And the notion that getting high on marijuana is somehow more benign than getting high on alcohol or other drugs is specious. Impaired is impaired.

Are the effects of marijuana use permanent?

How marijuana use affects an individual, and for how long, is dependent on many factors: amount, frequency, and regularity of use; the concentration of THC and the method of use; the individual’s weight, body type, genetics, family history, mental and physical health status; use of additional substances; the age of first use and progression to regular or heavy use.

Marijuana remains in the system well after the high has faded. Heavy users can test positive for marijuana in their urine 30 or more days past their last use.  A one-time user can test positive as many as 6 days after use. But is there a long-term impact to the body?

It has become clear in just the past few decades of neuroscience research that a young person’s brain continues to develop and change well into the twenties, and that the neurochemical processes that build a healthy, functioning brain in adolescence are adversely affected by the use of marijuana, along with alcohol, opioids and other drugs.  Some studies have indicated that the physical and behavioral effects of regular and/or heavy use are, in fact, life altering, and that adverse effects persist into adulthood irrespective of continued use.  Not surprisingly, these studies are hotly contested by the proponents of legalization.  At a minimum, there is a large amount of data that strongly associates early adolescent use of any substance with substance dependence later in life.

Read more about the long-term effects of marijuana here.

Reliable data from large, longitudinal studies are critical to determining the potential long-term impact of marijuana use on our next, and subsequent, generations. Because marijuana’s legal availability is recent and limited, such broad-scale, long-term data is nascent.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have funded leading researchers in the fields of adolescent development and neuroscience to conduct the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study—the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. The ABCD Research Consortium includes 21 research sites across the country that will invite approximately 10,000 children ages 9-10 to join the study. Researchers will track their biological and behavioral development through adolescence into young adulthood.

Hopefully this data will inform our marijuana, and other substance policies, in a constructive manner. Longitudinal data, however, cannot be rushed, and what we know so far indicates that the wisest course is a no-use course when it comes to marijuana use by those not yet 21 years of age.  Through all the persuasive rhetoric from those who would create a thriving marijuana marketplace, we must not fail to make a distinction between “legal” and “safe.”

What, exactly, does marijuana do to your brain?

For an accurate explanation of the neuroscience of substance use, we defer to the scientists.  NIDA explains the impact of marijuana and other intoxicating substances on the brain here.

For a reader-friendly, parent-oriented explanation of how substance use is seen to impact the development of the adolescent brain, read Dr. Daniel Siegel’s book Brain Storm:  the Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.  You can visit his site here.

What should parents say to their children about marijuana?

Something.  Whatever you do, don’t ignore the issue and hope your child won’t be faced with the chance to try it, or won’t have a classmate who uses marijuana.  The chances of that are slim even when the great majority of students are making healthy choices and avoiding drugs, as is the case in Ossining. (See use stats here.)

NIDA has created a dedicated area of its extensive website to the issue of communicating effectively with your adolescent children about the risks of marijuana use.

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has a Marijuana Talk Kit for parents available for download.

In addition, NIDA has a comprehensive Q&A brochure written for teens on the subject of marijuana.  You can review it, download it, and make it available to your children.

%

of Ossining 8th graders DON'T use marijuana

(Source:  NYS Youth Development Survey, November 2015 at OHS and AMD. Teens reporting no marijuana use in the past 30 days.)

%

of 8th graders nationwide DON'T use marijuana

(Source:  Monitoring the Future, University of Michigan 2015. Teens reporting no marijuana use in the past 30 days.)

%

of Ossining 10th graders DON'T use marijuana

(Source:  NYS Youth Development Survey, November 2015 at OHS and AMD. Teens reporting no marijuana use in the past 30 days.)

%

of 10th graders nationwide DON'T use marijuana

(Source:  Monitoring the Future, University of Michigan 2015. Teens reporting no marijuana use in the past 30 days.)

%

of Ossining 12th graders DON'T use marijuana

(Source:  NYS Youth Development Survey, November 2015 at OHS and AMD. Teens reporting no marijuana use in the past 30 days.)

%

of 12th graders nationwide DON'T use marijuana

(Source:  Monitoring the Future, University of Michigan 2015. Teens reporting no marijuana use in the past 30 days.)

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Ossining Communities That Care | Alice Joselow, Coordinator | 165 Main Street | Ossining, NY 10562 | 914-502-1304

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