Teen Assessment Of Marijuana Underestimates The Risk Of New Varieties

According to a University of Michigan study, alcohol and cigarette use among American teens reached its lowest levels in 40 years in 2014 and use of illicit drugs overall continued to decline. Despite this overall trend in drug use reduction the use of marijuana has risen to its highest level in 15 years.

The trends over time reveal a clear relationship between perceived risk associated with potentially addictive substances and their rate of use among high school students. With legalization in a growing number of states, it’s easy to see why students would think marijuana poses little danger.

The late 1990s was one of the peak times of marijuana use among high schoolers. The rates dropped consistently after that, but began rising again in 2007. The percentage of students who reported marijuana use in 2014 is now about the same as it was in the late 1990s.

One of the reasons marijuana use may have risen is that the perception of risk has dropped. The percentage of students who consider marijuana use risky has dropped from about 80% in the early ‘90s to less than 40% among seniors and about 60% among eighth-graders.

The danger is now greater than ever

What’s missing from the broad public discussion of marijuana is an understanding of the increase in the psychoactive components of today’s cannabis compared to the marijuana available in the 1960s and 1970s. Until 1994, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentrations in marijuana sold in the U.S. peaked at about 4%. Last year High Times reported that about 20 strains are now commonly available with THC concentrations of 20%.

Increased concentration of THC is not the only change of concern. Butane hash oil-enhanced marijuana, which is readily available, may further increase THC concentration to 80%. In addition, as THC concentration has risen, the presence of cannabidiol (CBD) has declined. A non-psychoactive chemical that operates on different neural pathways than THC, CBD is essentially the anti-THC ingredient in cannabis. It reduces the high and protects against side effects such as sleepiness, paranoia and memory impairment. It is usually the second most common of the 60 cannabinoids found in marijuana and reduced levels further contribute to greater potency of marijuana.

These chemical changes don’t just provide a quicker high; they fundamentally change the risk profile. Until recently, it was rare to see a marijuana-related emergency. Last year, a study in The Lancet found that 25% of first psychotic episodes were related to high-potency cannabis.

The risk doesn’t go away as the high fades

Studies show that exposure of the adolescent brain to the high-potency marijuana currently available increases the risk of psychosis for life. Daily users of high-potency marijuana —the type most commonly available today —who start smoking before their brains have matured have five times the risk of experiencing psychosis in their lifetimes compared to a non-user; weekend users triple their risk. The risk of psychosis persists even if they stop smoking.

People say that there is a low incidence of developing dependence on marijuana and that’s true — in individuals who start using it in their 30s. Those who begin using marijuana before their brains mature have five times the risk of developing dependence on marijuana compared to those who initiate use later.

When are brains mature? Women’s brains reach full maturity in their mid-20s; men’s brains mature a little later, so the risks persist long after high school.

Synthetic marijuana is more dangerous still

Also known as K2 or spice, synthetic marijuana is really a mix of other herbs and plant matter with chemical additives that give it psychoactive properties. In the Monitoring the Future study, it consistently ranks second among drugs used by high school students.

Teens can buy spice at gas stations, head shops, or online quite easily and often think the mix is both natural and safe. While the plant material is entirely natural, the active ingredients are the synthetic or designer cannabinoid compounds added to them.

The chemical additives are unregulated and change frequently, largely as a response to enforcement actions. Every time a drug test is developed and the Drug Enforcement Agency gets an emergency schedule 1 classification for the ingredients, the designers change some part of structure to make it no longer illegal. Every alteration in the composition changes the potency and effects.

Most spice users experience effects similar to regular marijuana. In addition to elevated mood and relaxation, a higher percentage report psychotic effects including paranoia, intense anxiety and hallucinations. Not only are psychotic episodes more common while spice users are intoxicated, they may persist or occur after the high has passed. Individuals who experience psychosis as a result of synthetic marijuana may not respond to traditional antipsychotics.

What to do

Now is the time to educate teens about their misperception of the dangers of these drugs. This is a time when the risks are far higher than they currently understand. Legalization among some states sends the message that the risk is minimal. Don’t hesitate to tell teens the truth.