Burn Out: Marijuana’s Hidden Dangers
At first glance, Alana* seems like anything but a typical pot smoker: Model-pretty, vivacious, and smart, the eighteen-year-old is enrolled in a competitive program at New York University and has won national accolades for her community service projects. But if. At first glance, Alana* seems like anything but a typical pot smoker: Model-pretty, vivacious, and smart, the eighteen-year-old is enrolled in a competitive program at New York University and has won national accolades for her community service projects. But if you ask her about her smoking habits, she admits to sparking up a joint every now and then: “I’ve smoked pot over a dozen times, and I have a lot of friends who smoke daily. It’s not a big deal at all.”
That kind of laid-back attitude toward marijuana is common and is helping fuel a frightening trend, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Their 2009 Monitoring the Future survey found that the rate of marijuana use among teens, which had been steadily falling for nearly two decades, is slowly edging upward, even as cigarette smoking is on the decline. For example, 15.9 percent of tenth graders said they used pot in the past month, compared with 13.8 percent in 2008. Experts believe that recent news coverage of the legalization of medical marijuana may be contributing to these worrisome stats. “There’s the thought that if it’s being used legally, it can’t be that bad, which is false,” explains Nora Volkow, M.D., director of NIDA. “In those cases, it’s being prescribed by a physician for specific circumstances and at very particular doses–after all, it is a powerful drug,” adds Cynthia J. Mears, D.O., an adolescent specialist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Certainly, the latest research on marijuana confirms that getting high can cause physical and mental effects beyond just feeling mellow. For starters, the marijuana available today is much more potent than that of the past–and can even be secretly laced with more dangerous drugs like crack cocaine and PCP. “When you buy marijuana, you never really know what you’re getting,” warns Mears. Volkow adds, “We’ve seen an upswing in the number of emergency room admissions related to marijuana use.” In addition, pot interferes with learning by impairing the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus. “You won’t be able to memorize information you’re normally able to,” says Volkow.
Furthermore, science is shedding more light on the complex psychiatric effects of marijuana, including what’s known as amotivational syndrome, which is characterized by a loss of interest in activities. Lab tests have found that exposure to cannabinoids from pot during adolescence can directly affect the brain’s reward system, making it less receptive, according to Volkow. “This means the same things that excited you in the past, like hanging out with your friends, will be less fun. Basically, smoking pot can change who you are,” she says.
Some teens get high as a way to escape from pressure of everyday life, but marijuana only worsens the problem, she adds, saying, “Your body’s naturally produced chemicals [called endogenous cannabinoids] help buffer your brain’s stress response, and repeatedly getting high inhibits their production. When you’re no longer under the effects of marijuana and you’re also not producing your own cannabinoids, it makes you even more susceptible to stress”–which motivates you to light up again, creating a vicious cycle. Daily pot consumption is also linked to depression and anxiety, according to a study published in Neurobiology of Disease. Indeed, despite the humorous treatment marijuana often gets in movies and among friends, the truth is no laughing matter. “Your growing brain is like a fine-tuned instrument, susceptible to long-lasting changes. Using marijuana is like mortgaging it,” says Volkow. “You’re going to pay a price.”
At first glance, Alana* seems like anything but a typical pot smoker: Model-pretty, vivacious, and smart, the eighteen-year-old is enrolled in a competitive program at New York University and has won national accolades for her…