When it comes to wide-ranging social experiments brought in by a few masterminds, the outcomes are more often bad than good, especially if you find yourself in the test group. When the consequences are studied and verified, those who suffered under a bad experiment are rarely made whole to any manner or degree – much less used as a lesson in prevention for others.
Such is the case with legalized marijuana in Colorado (coming to a state near you).
DENVER — The first two states to legalize recreational marijuana are starting to grapple with teenagers’ growing use of highly potent pot, even as both boost the industry and reap huge tax windfalls from its sales.
Though the legal purchase age is 21 in Colorado and Washington, parents, educators and physicians say youths are easily getting hold of edibles infused with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component that causes a high, and concentrates such as “shatter,” a brittle, honey-colored substance that is heated and then inhaled through a special device.
Each poses serious risks to adolescents’ physical and mental health.
“Underage kids have unbelievable access to nuclear-strength weed,” said Andrew Brandt, a Boulder, Colo., software executive whose son got hooked while in high school.
With some marijuana products averaging 68 percent THC — exponentially greater than the pot baby boomers once smoked — calls to poison control centers and visits to emergency rooms have risen. In the Denver area, visits to Children’s Hospital Colorado facilities for treatment of cyclic vomiting, paranoia, psychosis and other acute cannabis-related symptoms jumped to 777 in 2015, from 161 in 2005.
“Horrible things are happening to kids,” said psychiatrist Libby Stuyt, who treats teens in southwestern Colorado and has studied the health impacts of high-potency marijuana. “I see increased problems with psychosis, with addiction, with suicide, with depression and anxiety.”
As more than a dozen states from Hawaii to New Hampshire consider legalizing marijuana, doctors warn of an urgent need for better education — not just of teens but of parents and lawmakers — about how the products being marketed can significantly affect young people’s brain development.
The limited scientific research to date shows that earlier and more frequent use of high-THC cannabis puts adolescents at greater jeopardy of substance use disorders, mental health issues and poor school performance.
“The brain is abnormally vulnerable during adolescence,” said Staci Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies how marijuana affects the brain. “Policy seems to have outpaced science, and in the best of all possible worlds, science would allow us to set policy.”
The critics also insist that more must be done to maintain tight regulation of the industry. That’s not been the case so far, they argue, with dispensaries opening near high schools in Seattle and with retail and medical pot shops in Denver outnumbering Starbucks and McDonald’s locations combined.
Some physicians liken the states’ actions to a public health experiment, one that supports the cannabis industry’s interests while ignoring the implications for adolescents’ health.
“I hope we don’t lose a generation of people before we become clear we need to protect our kids’ brains,” said Leslie Walker-Harding, an adolescent medicine specialist who chairs the pediatrics department at Seattle Children’s Hospital. It also is seeing more teens with marijuana-related symptoms.
“It seems like everyone is looking the other way, and meanwhile kids are ending up in hospitals,” Brandt said in detailing the struggles over his son’s marijuana use. After the 20-year-old college student’s grades plummeted in the fall, his father enrolled him in a private treatment program costing thousands of dollars a month.
[40-year-old author, speaker and drug-treatment consultant and former addict Ben Cort]: “We are holding on to a construct of marijuana which today is antiquated,” he said. “Ten years from now, there’s going to be a reckoning.”
This is just on the micro level, dealing with children’s brain development into adulthood. Let’s expand the circle just a bit and consider what this is doing to our neighborhood crime rates.
A friend of mine is the former Colorado Deputy Attorney General and current Chief Deputy District Attorney for Jefferson County. I asked how legalization affected the crime rate: Without providing the exact percentage, he simply said, “Way up, both in violent and non-violent crime.” By the way, if you haven’t noticed, the drug cartels haven’t gone out of business. I remember being bombarded with this promise by the pro-drug crowd. Haven’t heard from them on this issue in a while.
This isn’t over by a long shot. Across the country, pro-drug people want to legalize or at least decriminalize stronger drugs like cocaine and heroin. Since the Overton Window shifted with pot, many people are saying, “Why not?”
Our children are why not.