Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States. The use of marijuana has adverse health, safety, social, academic, economic, and behavioral consequences, yet to most of society’s astonishment, many people view the drug as “harmless.” The widespread perception of marijuana as a benign natural herb seriously detracts from the most basic message our society needs to deliver, understand, and accept: IT IS NOT OK FOR ANYONE, ESPECIALLY YOUNG PEOPLE, TO USE THIS OR ANY OTHER ILLICIT DRUG.
Marijuana became popular among the younger population in the 1960’s, but most of the marijuana available today is considerably more potent than the “weed” of the Woodstock era. The average THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) levels rose from less than 1% in the mid 70’s to more than 6% in 2002. Sinsemilla potency increased in the past two decades from 6% to more than 13%, with some samples containing THC levels of up to 33%. Users tend to be younger than those of past generations. Since the late 60’s, the average age of the consistent marijuana users has dropped from around 19 to 17. People are also lighting up at an earlier age. Fewer than 1/2 of those using marijuana for the first time in the late 1960’s were under 18. However, by 2001, the proportion of those under 18 first time users had increased to about 67%.
It must also be acknowledged that today’s young people are living in a world that is vastly different from the world of their parents and grandparents. Kids these days are bombarded on a constant basis with drug messages in print, on screen, and on CD. They also have easy access to the Internet, which has endless sites promoting the wonders of marijuana, offering kits for beating drug tests, and, in some cases, advertising pot for sale. Many people who worry about the dangers of heroin or cocaine are far less concerned about marijuana. They also tend to consider experimentation with pot an adolescent rite of passage. These ignorant, uninformed attitudes are some of what has given rise to a number of myths in our culture. Movies, magazines, and other media commonly glamorize marijuana and demonstrate gratuitous use of it, completely trivializing the risks and ignoring any negative consequences. At the same time, special interest groups proclaim that smoked marijuana is not only harmless, it’s actually good medicine.
The point of this article is to look at some of the grossly popular misconceptions/myths about marijuana and explain why they are wrong. I also plan to describe the dangers of marijuana and why it is important for society to send a clear, consistent, and credible message to our young people about the seriousness of the threat.
MYTH: MARIJUANA IS NOT HARMFUL
Marijuana harms in many ways and kids are the MOST vulnerable to its damaging effects. Use of the drug can lead to significant health, safety, social, and learning or behavioral problems and the issues only intensify the younger the user. Short term effects of marijuana use include memory loss, distorted perception, trouble with thinking/problem solving, and anxiety. Students who use marijuana may find it hard to learn which naturally jeopardizes their ability to achieve their full potential. Marijuana can cause problems with concentration and thinking patterns. College students who used marijuana regularly have shown to have impaired skills related to attention, memory, and learning 24 hours after they last used the drug. A study conducted at the University of Iowa, found that people who used marijuana frequently (7 or more times weekly for an extended period) showed deficits in mathematical skills and verbal expression as well as selective impairments in memory. Regular marijuana use has also shown to affect the user long term causing poor academic performance, poor job performance with increased absences from work/school, cognitive deficits, and lung damage. Marijuana use is also associated with a number of risky sexual behaviors, including having multiple sex partners, initiating sex at an early age, and failing to consistently consider or use any type of birth control
Particularly for young people, marijuana use can lead to increased anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other mental health problems. One study linked social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, attention problems, and thoughts of suicide in adolescents with marijuana use. Other research shows that kids age 12 to 17 who smoke marijuana weekly are three times more likely than nonusers to have thoughts about committing suicide. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction and psychiatric disorders often occur together. One of the most recent surveys produced by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that adults who use illicit drugs were more than twice as likely as non-users to suffer from a serious mental illness.
Marijuana also demonstrates harm when it contributes to auto crashes or other incidents that injure or kill, another problem that is especially prevalent among young people. In a study produced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, even a moderate dose of marijuana was shown to impair driving performance. The study measured reaction time and how often drivers checked the rearview mirror, side streets, and the relative speed of other vehicles. Another study looked at data concerning shock/trauma patients who had been involved in traffic crashes. The researchers found 15% of the trauma patients injured while driving a car or motorcycle had been smoking marijuana and another 17% had both THC and alcohol in their blood. Statistics such as these are particularly troubling in light of recent survey results indicating that almost 36 MILLION people, age 12 or older, drove under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, and/or another illicit drug in the past year.
MYTH: MARIJUANA IS NOT ADDICTIVE
To say it was ONCE believed that consistent marijuana use could lead to addiction would be false because that same mentality is still very much prevalent today. However, all research shows the exact opposite to be true. Marijuana use is often associated with behavior that meets the criteria for substance dependence established by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIV). The DSM states the criteria for substance dependence includes tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, using a drug even in the presence of adverse effects, and giving up social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use. A survey conducted in 2002 by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health stated 4.3 MILLION Americans were classified with dependence on or abuse of marijuana. That figure represents 1.8% of the total U.S. population and 60% of those classified who abuse or are dependent on illicit drugs.
As with any addiction, the physical need for marijuana brings a powerful pull on the user and this need, coupled with withdrawal symptoms, is naturally the disadvantage to ceasing consistent use. Those trying to quit may experience irritability, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. Research also indicates the earlier kids start using, the more likely they are to become dependent on this and/or other illicit drugs later in life. It is also a fact that the number of teens entering treatment each year with their primary issue being consistent marijuana use is higher than all other illicit drugs combined. Of those admitted for treatment (all ages), 56% stated they had first use the drug by age 14 and 26% had begun by age 12.
MYTH: MARIJUANA IS NOT AS HARMFUL TO YOUR HEALTH AS TOBACCO
Although some people think that marijuana is a benign natural herb, it actually contains many of the same cancer causing chemicals found in tobacco. Puff for puff, the amount of tar inhaled and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed, regardless of THC content, are 3 to 5 times greater than among tobacco smokers. Consequently, regular marijuana users often have the same breathing problems as tobacco users, such as chronic coughing/wheezing, more frequent acute chest illnesses, and a tendency toward obstructed airways. Even at very young ages, marijuana smoking can cause potentially serious/chronic respiratory system damage. There have also been findings that show the daily smoking of even small amounts of marijuana (3 or 4 joints) have comparable, if not greater effect on the respiratory system than the smoking of a pack of cigarettes and regular use, even for less than six years, causes a marked deterioration in lung function.
MYTH: MARIJUANA CALMS PEOPLE DOWN
Kids who use marijuana weekly are almost 4 times more likely to report they engage in violent behavior. Another study showed, incidences of physically attacking people, stealing, and/or destroying property increased in proportion to the number of days marijuana was smoked in the past. Users were also twice as likely to disobey at school and destroy their own things. Researchers examined the relationship between 10 illicit drugs and 8 criminal offenses and found a greater frequency of marijuana use associated with a greater likelihood to commit weapons offenses. With the exception of alcohol, none of the other drugs showed such a connection. This same study that was published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, also found a correlation between marijuana use and the commission of attempted homicide and reckless endangerment offenses.
MYTH: MARIJUANA CAN TREAT CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES
Marijuana providing relief for people with certain medical conditions is a subject of intense national debate. Under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, marijuana was established as a Schedule I controlled substance which in layman’s terms means, it’s a dangerous drug that has no recognized medical value. THC can be useful for treating some medical problems which is why Synthetic THC is the main ingredient in Marinol, an FDA approved medication used to control nausea in cancer chemotherapy patients and to stimulate appetite in people with AIDS. Marinol, a legal and safe version of medical marijuana, has been available by prescription since 1985. However, marijuana as a smoked product has NEVER proven to be medically beneficial and, in fact, is much more likely to harm one’s health. Marijuana smoke is a crude THC delivery system that also sends many other harmful substances into the body. The best available evidence points to the conclusion that the adverse effects of marijuana smoke on the respiratory system would almost certainly offset any possible benefit.
Many organizations are pushing to make marijuana available for medicinal purposes, but this campaign is really nothing more than veiled efforts to legalize the drug. However, medicines in this country are not approved by popular vote anyway. Before any drug is given approval consideration for public consumption, let alone actually released, it must undergo extensive, intense clinical trials to demonstrate both safety and efficacy.
MYTH: BUYING MARIJUANA DOESN’T HURT ANYONE
Despite having a reputation of the “peace and love” herb and despite claims that smoking pot is a “victimless” crime, there is much evidence to show marijuana and violence go hand in hand. Marijuana trafficking is a huge, violent business, whether the plants are grown on foreign soil or in the basements, backyards, and farms of the United States. The trade in domestically grown marijuana often turns violent when dealers conflict or when growers feel crops are threatened, but drug criminals are not the only ones who are threatened by the violence of this trade. A great deal of the marijuana produced in America is done so on public lands, including our national forests and park, areas that have been specifically set aside to preserve wildlife habitats, provide playgrounds for our children, and serve as natural refuges for recreation. Traffickers use these lands because they are free and accessible, crop ownership is hard to document, and because growers are immune to asset forfeiture laws. Officials report many growers looking to protect their crops will surround their plots with booby traps, such as fishhooks dangling at eye level, bear traps, punji sticks, and rat traps rigged with shotgun shells.
The majority of this drug that is grown on public land is done so in the national forests of California, where more than 540,000 plants were seized or eradicated in 2003 alone. This figure does not include the 309,000 plants taken from land in other states or the hundreds of thousands of plants removed from land managed by other government agencies. The description of those controlling any of California’s illegal marijuana fields is “peace loving flower children carrying high powered assault weapons”. During the growing season, Mexican cartels smuggle hundreds of undocumented nationals into the U.S. to work the fields. They also bring with them pesticides, equipment, and guns. Hunters, campers, and others have been threatened at gunpoint or fired upon after stumbling into these illegal gardens.
Another misconception is marijuana smoked in the U.S. is grown in the U.S. In reality, smuggled marijuana, whether from Mexico, other Latin America areas, or Canada, accounts for most of the pot available in America. Drug traffickers also often use violence to get their product to our market and have been doing so since the 70’s.
Let us not forget what marijuana use by pregnant women does to their unborn children, it hurts teen users who betray the trust of their parents, and it hurts the parents who are confused and dismayed by their kids’ use. It hurts communities when users commit crimes or cause crashes on roadways. Marijuana also creates harm by causing lost productivity in business, limiting educational attainment, and by contributing to illnesses and injuries that put additional strain on the health care system. Completely harmless???
MYTH: GOOD PARENTS CAN KEEP THEIR CHILDREN FROM BEING EXPOSED TO MARIJUANA
It’s an unfortunate fact that if kids want marijuana, they will find it. About 55% of youths, ages 12 to 17, reported that marijuana would be easy to obtain, whether it was from a friend, at school, and someone selling drugs on the street. Kids are also exposed to a relentless barrage of marijuana messages in music, movies, magazines, and the Internet. Certain aspects of our culture also glamorize marijuana use while trivializing, failing, or refusing to show the serious harm it can cause. In 2001, a survey found 42% of all high school students nationwide had used marijuana at some time in their lives. A report based on that survey revealed that from 1990 to 2001, the number of 9th graders reporting current marijuana use had more than doubled from 9.5% to 19.4%. Marijuana use is in some ways like a contagious disease, spreading from “infected” individuals to the others around them. Kids with friends who use marijuana are themselves more than 30 times as likely to marijuana. An extremely interesting fact for a number of the kids I have worked with is kids who know their parents consistently used or are using the drug are NINE TIMES more likely to also use!
We must accept that it’s out there and unless you are home schooling your child, living in a house with no technology, never allowing them to leave the home, and never allowing them to have people in (which is borderline child abuse), your child is going to be aware of/exposed to drugs. It’s your connection with them and their education that is going help avoid a drug habit/experimentation. Obviously that is not a guarantee. I am aware children have their own minds eventually doing what they are going to do. They are like people that way. I can tell you, you stand a far better chance than doing nothing!
MYTH: PARENTS CANNOT DO ANYTHING TO STOP THEIR KIDS FROM EXPERIMENTING
It should not have to be said that parents hold the most powerful influence over their children when it comes to drugs, but unfortunately it does. When we get involved, stay involved, know what our kids are doing, set limits, and give clear rules and consequences, we increase the chances our kids will stay drug free. Research has shown appropriate parental monitoring can reduce future drug use even among adolescents who may be prone to use, such as rebellious children, those who cannot control their emotions, and ones who experience internal distress. In a survey conducted in 2000, 27% of young people who believed that their parents did not strongly disapprove of marijuana use reported illicit drug use within the past month. For kids who thought their parents did disapprove, the rate of use was only 4%. Another interesting fact is that kids who learn about the risks of drugs from their parents or caregivers are less likely to use drugs than kids who do not.
Experts do suggest that it is best for parents to try and be home when their kids come home from school because evidence indicates the riskiest time for kids to involve themselves with drugs is 3-6p.m. Those parents who can’t be home at that time should consider enrollment in after school programs, sports, or other activities, or arrange for a trusted adult to oversee them. It’s also important for families to participate in family oriented activities such as eating meals together, talk and connect on a regular basis, and establish regular routines of doing something special (like taking a walk) that allow parents to talk to their kids. Open channels of communication between parents and children gives young people greater confidence and helps them make healthy choices.
The clutter of messages about marijuana in our current atmosphere is creating great confusion and worse is sending our children mixed signals about drugs in general. What should be clear is that no responsible person thinks young people should use marijuana!
Parents need to educate themselves on the dangers so they can in turn educate their children. They need to monitor their activities and staying actively involved in their lives. Schools and communities can provide activities that keep kids interested and involved in healthy, drug free programs.