Wa: Marijuana debate could be sending mixed signals to teens

mapinc / 5/17/2011 / By Laura Geggel, Source:Issaquah Press

As the debate about medical marijuana progresses, it could be sending mixed messages to youths, shaping their thoughts about the still-illegal substance.

"Across the board, our counselors are reporting a change in attitude toward marijuana," Youth Eastside Services Executive Director Patti Skelton-McGougan said. "Teens are seeing pot as less dangerous because of its potential medicinal properties."

YES counselors are working to educate youths about marijuana, including information showing it is addictive, is often a gateway drug, and can lead to lower school performance and illness.

Nationally, the number of middle and high school students experimenting with the drug is at its highest since the 1980s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In the Issaquah School District, data only goes back to 2004, when the district began administering the state’s Healthy Youth Survey.

In 2004, more students, on average, reported "that adults in their neighborhoods think youth marijuana use is ‘very wrong,’" compared to reports from 2010.

In 2004, 70 percent of sophomores and 58 percent of seniors said they thought their neighbors looked down on youths using marijuana.

In 2010, 62 percent of sophomores and 48 percent of seniors replied yes to that same question.

The number of district students reporting that they use marijuana has not increased as much.

One question on the Healthy Youth Survey asks students if they have ever smoked marijuana.

In 2004, 19 percent of sophomores and 39 percent of seniors reported yes, they had smoked marijuana. In 2010, 21 percent of sophomores and 44 percent of seniors reported yes, a slight increase from 2004.

Each Healthy Youth Survey has a 3 percent margin of error, meaning any percentage change less than 3 percent is not significant.

Educating youth about marijuana

A number of Eastside nonprofit organizations, physicians and school counselors are reaching out to teenagers, helping them learn more about marijuana and how to stop using it.

First, counselors help youths reframe their view on marijuana. If a teenager calls it an herb, they should be told, "So is arsenic," Nobel Erickson, a certified chemical dependency professional and a mental health counselor, said. "Just because something grows out of the ground doesn’t mean it’s safe."

The main chemical in cannabis that gets people high is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a chemical that heightens awareness, provides a feeling of relaxation, decreases anxiety and stimulates the appetite.

"When you’re not on it, regular life feels really boring," Erickson said.

People who chronically use marijuana might see it decrease both their ability to learn and their memory, according to the national institute.

In the 1960s, cannabis had a THC concentration of between 0.5 and 3.0 percent. Now, most cannabis has between 15 percent and 20 percent THC.

"On average, we’re talking about a difference of one beer versus eight beers," Erickson said.

Research shows that marijuana is addictive, more so for youths. On average, about 9 percent up to 17 percent of young people become addicted and about 20 percent of daily users become addicted, reported the national institute.

Along with addiction comes illness. Marijuana smokers have higher incidences of chest colds, bronchitis, emphysema, bronchial asthma and certain types of cancers, such as lung cancer, Friends of Youth Director of Community Treatment Services Paula Frederick said.

But, with the medical marijuana debate, some of the negative side effects are not as widely discussed.

"What is easy for adults to forget is that when we are adolescents, most of our influences come from what we’re seeing," Erickson said. "Our teen brains are learning about social norms, social cues."

Stop the smoking

Teenagers can get help from several nonprofit organizations, but often they are referred to agencies after a parent, school employee or police officer has caught them in the act.

The first step is to ask the youth to be honest and think about the ways marijuana is affecting his or her life.

"How is it affecting them psychologically, how is it affecting them socially," Erickson asked.

She encourages teens to make healthy choices, and connects them with classes, support groups or individual counseling, anything that will help them learn the facts and make positive changes in their lives.

Youths may use marijuana to self medicate, or because they are bored. If they stop smoking, it can be hard to stay off the drug.

"Stress is probably the No. 1 reason I know why kids continue to use or relapse," Erickson said. "We are helping kids to recognize when they are stressed, which oddly enough is not an instinctual thing."

Erickson will help her client think of other ways to deal with stress, and "within 10 minutes I’ve filled up an entire white board," she said.

Sometimes, people experience withdrawal symptoms within a month after they stop using marijuana, including sleep and appetite disturbances, irritability, depression and cravings.

Some of her clients started using marijuana in middle school, and many students begin between eighth and 10th grade. In the 2010 Healthy Youth Survey, 7 percent of district eighth-graders and 21 percent of sophomores report having used marijuana in their lifetimes, showing the jump between middle and high school.

Teenagers older than 13 can seek help with a counselor without notifying their parents, though counselors often encourage teens to engage their parents so they will have more support.

Many services charge on a sliding scale, and usually insurance will cover a visit, Erickson said.

Get involved

Drug problem? Call Friends of Youth at 392-6367 or Youth Eastside Services at 747-4937.


MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom