Mental Health Minute: Marijuana is not as harmless as you may think

Special to the HeraldMarch 11, 2014 

I often hear parents tell me, "I smoked a little pot when I was in college, it didn't hurt me, so how can I tell my kid it's bad?" I often wonder what great things these people would have accomplished if they hadn't used marijuana, but I don't bring that up. Instead, I point out a much more serious issue. Today's marijuana is not like that of 20 years ago.

The marijuana on the streets today is four or five times more potent than it used to be. There are higher levels of THC, that's the main harmful chemical in marijuana that affects the brain.

Marijuana smoke contains some of the same cancer-causing compounds as tobacco, sometimes in higher concentrations. According to The Partnership at Drugfree.org, studies show that someone who smokes five joints per week may be taking in as many cancer-causing chemicals as someone who smokes a full pack of cigarettes every day. Many marijuana smokers also develop chronic coughs and lung problems.

What is most disturbing is that we see adolescents who are using the drug. The research is clear that those smoking at age 11 are damaging their brains. "As a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, I am greatly concerned about young people who begin using this drug at early stages in their neural development. Adolescents who have started using marijuana before the age of 18 experienced as much as an eight-point decline in IQ scores due to exposure to this drug while their brains are still maturing," explained Dr. Ranjay Halder, Manatee Glens chief medical director and board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist.

The brain continues to develop until ages 25 or 26, so introducing mind-altering compounds during this time can cause serious and irreversible long-term impact. For some, it can also be a trigger for psychosis. And those who have taken large doses have even been known to suffer from hallucinations, delusions and a loss of identity.

We already know about the short-term or persistent impact of marijuana which include problems with memory and learning, distorted perception (sights, sounds, time and touch), trouble with thinking and problem solving, loss of motor coordination, increased heart rate and anxiety. We see an increase in injuries and deaths from impaired driving.

While I am reluctant to use the term "gateway drug," I do know that almost every person who has been through our addictions recovery has started with alcohol and/or marijuana. We see strong patterns of addictions running in families, so some people need to be particularly cautious.

Parents should check for changes in attitudes and performance in school. If they are concerned, talk with your doctor, counselor or a mental health and addictions center. There is help waiting and recovery is possible.

Nestor Levesque, director of Adult Outpatient Services at Manatee Glens, the Mental Health & Addictions Specialty Hospital and Outpatient Practice serving our community, is also chair of the marijuana task force for the Manatee County Substance Abuse Coalition. Manatee Glens, a nonprofit health care provider that delivers services from seven Manatee County locations, produces this biweekly column and welcomes your questions about mental health and substance abuse matters. For further information, call 782-4299 or send an email to Sondra.guffey@manateeglens.org

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