A child psychiatrist and medical director of one of Colorado’s largest youth substance abuse treatment clinics, he has seen first hand marijuana’s detrimental effect on young people.
And in the past two, post-legalization years, he’s noticed some concerning spikes: in number of patients, in levels of marijuana in their systems, and in marijuana addiction among his young patients.
“It’s made things much more difficult,” Dr. Thurstone told CNA. “Treatment is much more difficult than it used to be, just because the attitudes are more relaxed about marijuana use, and it’s so much more prevalent and easy to get.”
Currently, recreational marijuana is only available for purchase in three other states – Washington, Alaska and Oregon – and in Washington, D.C. But with the 2016 elections on the horizon, both medical and recreational marijuana bills will be showing up on ballots in states across the country, most of whom are looking to places like Colorado to determine best practices.
While the legalization of marijuana brings with it some economic benefits, many professionals who work with young people are concerned the increasing acceptance of marijuana and the minimizing of the risks and negative side effects of the drug.
The shifting perceptions of pot
As the social acceptance of marijuana increases, the laws change to reflect those attitudes, and vice versa. The legalization of marijuana is both a reflection of and a catalyst for more accepting attitudes toward marijuana.
As the perceived harmfulness of marijuana falls among teens, use goes up – or, at the very least, remains stable. A recent survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that for the first time ever, daily marijuana use has surpassed daily cigarette use among high school seniors.
In an interview with The Atlantic, the NIDA director Nora Volkow said that on the one hand, the findings prove the success of anti-tobacco campaigns that target adolescents.
On the other hand, the growing acceptance of pot among adolescents is concerning, especially given its impact on the developing brain, she said.
We’re seeing teenagers who are telling me, ‘Why would I stop using marijuana? I don’t believe it’s addictive, I don’t believe it has any bad effects, in fact it’s my medicine for my anger, depression, anxiety or ADHD.’
Dr. Thurstone has also found that teens today are more accepting of pot – a shift that began with the legalization of medical marijuana and was further solidified by the green light on recreational marijuana.
“Pre-legalization about 54 percent of 12-17 year-olds in Colorado reported great harm with regular marijuana use, and now post-legalization that’s dropped to about 34 percent,” he said.
“We’re clearly seeing a significant decrease in the perceived harmfulness of marijuana, especially among young people.”
And the data seems to match what he’s seen among the real live teens in his clinic as well.
“We’re seeing teenagers who are telling me, ‘Why would I stop using marijuana? I don’t believe it’s addictive, I don’t believe it has any bad effects, in fact it’s my medicine for my anger, depression, anxiety or ADHD.’”
This year, Denver Public Schools (DPS) created a position for substance prevention. Michel Holien, the new supervisor, said that while DPS hasn’t necessarily seen a sharp increase in marijuana use, they have noticed the shifting perceptions towards more accepting attitudes, and are working to combat them as early as the middle school level.
In the notoriously more-hippie-than-Denver city of Boulder, Colo., marijuana has long been entrenched in the culture, even before its legalization.
Father Peter Mussett, who serves as pastor at the Catholic Church on the campus of CU Boulder, said that even before legalization, 40 percent of incoming freshman were reporting use of marijuana on at least a monthly basis.
And while legalization has opened up more opportunities for conversations about marijuana, Fr. Mussett said it’s also sparked more curiosity about the drug in more people than when it was still illegal.
“The curiosity is something that I find is one of the most poisonous parts of the legalization of marijuana because I think ultimately it’s a toxic experience,” he said.
“(Legalization) just encourages the culture to say getting high is a great thing, and getting high is not a great thing. Getting high is destructive, and you can come in with all the best intentions, and on the other side of it, it always ruins people’s lives, continuously. It makes them dependent in worldy ways, and it does not actually encourage a good spiritual life surrendered to God.”
Health risks of marijuana
The biggest health concern for young people using marijuana is its harmful effect on the brain, which continues its development well into a person’s 20s, Dr. Thurstone said.
The main active ingredient in marijuana, THC, binds to receptors in the brain and can cause a significant decrease in IQ over time. A 2012 study published in the National Academy of Sciences found that adolescent exposure to marijuana can lead to an 8-point drop in IQ, on par with the drop seen in children exposed to lead.
Another concerning impact is the relationship between adolescent marijuana use and schizophrenia. A study repeated by multiple research groups has found that adolescent marijuana use can quadruple a teen’s risk of developing schizophrenia, Dr. Thurstone said.
Marijuana can also be addictive, with one in six adolescent users developing a dependence over time, despite the perceptions to the contrary.
“In the scientific and medical community there’s not debate about that anymore,” he said. “Marijuana is not just psychologically addictive but physically addictive.”
A secondary health risk of marijuana use in adolescents is car accidents. The leading cause of death of 15-20 year-olds is automobile accidents, and the number traffic fatalities in which adolescents testing positive for marijuana spiked in Colo. after the surge of medical marijuana in the state after 2009.
Part of the problem, Dr. Thurstone said, is that people don’t understand how marijuana influences driving differently than alcohol. Marijuana is fat soluble, and its effects on the body last much longer than water-soluble alcohol.
“That’s a myth, that it’s safe to drive under the influence of marijuana, we have to get good information out there around that,” he said.
Adolescent marijuana use is also associated with a lack of success in school, a major determining factor in quality of life over time.
“Everybody pretty much agrees it’s not a healthy thing in adolescents,” he said.
Motivating young people to avoid marijuana
The best way to talk to students about marijuana is to get personal, Holien said.
In her work with five Denver area middle schools on prevention tactics, she said she’s found the messaging that most resonates with students is how marijuana use could affect their various goals.
“It’s really understanding for each individual youth...what is really important to them,” she said.
“Is it getting into college? Is it staying on the team? Is it making sure their academics are up to par? But just understanding that marijuana, or really any substance use can get in the way of those goals, especially when you think about the ways that it does impact the brain.”
When Fr. Mussett talks to his students about marijuana, he says he always approaches it from the traditional moral lens – which looks at the intention, object of choice, and circumstances of use. As for motivating students to not use marijuana, he’s found that most helpful conversation is to focus especially on an individual’s intentionality behind their use.
Marijuana is unfortunately a synthetic spiritual life. It doesn’t actually help people get in touch with God and to contemplate the world and be in touch with the real.
“People don’t want to feel pain, people want to have a contemplative act, they want to be in touch, they want to be one with the universe, they want a transcendent experience, they want to have communion with others, which are all good things,” he said.
“So when I’m talking to people, I’m always walking them through ‘Ok, how does marijuana accomplish that? Is that’s something that’s a sustainable, valuable reality? Or is it an artificial simulation of that?’”
He said he then tries to help students find ways to accomplish those things without the use of marijuana or drugs – especially if it’s a true spiritual life they’re looking for.
“Marijuana is unfortunately a synthetic spiritual life. It doesn’t actually help people get in touch with God and to contemplate the world and be in touch with the real,” he said.
“And so the only counteraction to it I really see is to live an authentic spiritual life, and to seek whole ways rather than synthetic ways to experience communion, to understand your pain, to contemplate the real. I really think a life in Christ is the best solution for those people who are looking for these things.”