EDITORIAL: Time for blunt talk


In the larger culture’s push to legalize medical and recreational marijuana use, the data regarding the effects of pot use among teens have gotten overshadowed.

While marijuana has been used for generations by people around the globe, the debate now seems more focused on adult use of marijuana than how it affects younger people. Compared to the widespread Just Say No campaign of yesteryear, which frightened kids by showing how drugs scrambled their brains, there is little mention today about how that use – acutely and over time – can have ill health and social effects for young adults. Teenagers are hearing their culture discuss pot mostly in positive terms, and are getting a message that pot is OK, maybe even healthy.

Thankfully, there are some people still talking about how marijuana use by teens, whose brains are still forming, can lead to some undesirable outcomes.

In Westbrook – which has played prominently in the news lately with student-athletes breaking their code of conduct by using substances – parents, students and school officials are holding community meetings trying to get at the heart of the issue of teen substance abuse. Windham-Raymond schools, police and municipal officials have recently begun meeting to tackle substance abuse in those communities. And South Portland High School held a forum Wednesday night called “Parenting in the Age of Legalization: A Conversation on Preventing Teen Substance Use.” The Opportunity Alliance, an amalgam of community organizations partly funded with tobacco lawsuit settlement funds and various grants, is helping to organize some of these meetings in an effort to remind parents and teens that, despite the legalization of medical marijuana in Maine, pot is still a dangerous drug for teens.

It’s probably not a coincidence that as they hear references to medical marijuana, kids start to think it’s OK to use it themselves, since it’s medicine. Maine, as well as 21 other states, allow the use of medical marijuana. Studies show marijuana has proven medical benefits for those battling nausea from chemotherapy cancer treatments and a host of other ailments. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), is thought to be the ingredient in the marijuana plant that helps to alleviate medical symptoms. THC causes brain cells to release dopamine, which briefly creates good feelings.

While scientists are working on ways to create synthetic THC to provide similar benefits, in the meantime we have to deal with the conflicting messages about pot. According to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek magazine article, less than 40 percent of American high school seniors believe pot poses a health risk. That number was 55 percent in 2003. With such a cultural backdrop, it may be hard to convince teens that marijuana may be harmful for them. Those who are trying to break through and reach these impressionable young adults should be applauded.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has some pretty alarming statistics. The following is from its teen-focused website, teens.drugabuse.gov, which is worth checking out with a young person you love:

• “THC interferes with learning and memory … A recent study followed people from age 13 to 38 and found that those who used marijuana a lot in their teens and continued into adulthood had a significant drop in IQ, even if they quit.”

• “Research shows that drivers on marijuana have slower reaction times, impaired judgment, and problems responding to signals and sounds. A recent analysis of data from several studies found that marijuana use more than doubles a driver’s risk of being in an accident.”

• “Because marijuana affects brain function, your ability to do complex tasks could be compromised…People who use marijuana over the long term report less life satisfaction, poorer education, and job achievement, and more interpersonal problems compared to people who do not use marijuana.”

• “People who abuse marijuana are at risk of injuring their lungs through exposure to respiratory irritants found in marijuana smoke. The smoke from marijuana contains some of the same chemicals found in tobacco smoke; plus, marijuana users tend to inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer, so more smoke enters the lungs.”

• “Marijuana also has been associated with depression and anxiety.”

• “About 9 percent of people who use marijuana become dependent on it. The number increases to about one in six among those who start using it at a young age, and to 25 to 50 percent among daily users.”

–John Balentine, managing editor