Don’t let Colorado’s pot experiment draw in teens

Colorado has legalized marijuana, and I’m glad. We need to try some new approaches to drug policy in this country, and if Colorado is willing to be the guinea pig, we should be grateful.

But here at home, we need to be careful that Colorado’s experiment doesn’t blur one very important fact. Here, there and everywhere, teens should not be smoking marijuana.

Tina Clemmons is a prevention specialist for the Dallas Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. She has been hearing more and more parents dismiss concerns about their teens’ drug use.  “They say, ‘It’s just marijuana.’ ”

Dr. David Atkinson, a local professor of psychiatry and an addiction specialist, hears much the same thing from teens themselves. “ ‘It’s only pot,’ they say.”

But both Clemmons and Atkinson strongly reject the argument. “I’m frightened to death,” Clemmons said. “Parents and young people are not aware of the consequences.”

Now, please don’t confuse this with the “reefer madness” hysteria of old. This is about scientific evidence, not scare tactics.  And the science is clear that marijuana is not safe for the still-developing brains of teens and even young adults.

Susan Foster is vice president and director of policy research at Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. She put the matter in a way that jolted me.  “In most cases,” she said, “addiction is a pediatric disease.”

I think of runny noses and ear infections as the stuff of pediatrics. It’s painful to think of addiction as also part of childhood medicine.  But Foster said, “Adolescence is the critical period for onset of addiction. That’s because the brain is still developing and is more vulnerable to damage.”

CASAColumbia has studied the link between addiction and age at first use of addictive substances — alcohol, tobacco and drugs, both legal and illegal.

“We see some startling information,” Foster said. “Those who use addictive substances before age 15 are 6 1/2 times more likely to develop addiction than those who did not use until 21 or older.”

Brain chemistry is complicated, she said, but this risk factor is clear. “Early use hikes your risk of addiction,” she said. “The more time you can buy before first use, the lower the risk.”  And addiction is not the only risk of early use. Daily use of marijuana among young people produces an average drop in IQ of 6 to 8 points, said Atkinson, who is on the faculty at UT Southwestern Medical Center.  That’s about the same as for children exposed to elevated lead levels, he said.

All three experts I talked to say they believe that relaxing marijuana laws in Colorado and elsewhere is prompting more marijuana use among teens. “Legalization sends a tacit message of approval,” Atkinson said.  So it becomes more important than ever, they said, for parents to send a clear message of disapproval — for marijuana and all addictive substances. Clearly stating expectations actually works, studies show.

And though risk declines with age, Atkinson cautioned against framing the warning that way with teens. One of their greatest desires is to be treated as adults, he said, so a “You’re still too young” message is ineffective.

Instead, he said, parents should give a concise, straightforward explanation of the scientific evidence of damage to developing brains. “Adolescents often do well with that type of knowledge,” he said. “They feel they are being respected when they are taught the science.”

No matter what a parent’s history with marijuana may have been, that should not translate into acceptance with their own children, the experts said. “Kids will be kids” is not responsible parenting.   It will be interesting to see what Colorado’s experiment in drug policy brings. But let’s keep the experiment there, not in our homes.

Source: 26th March 2014

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