Marijuana: a gateway drug that keeps growing stronger

September 30, 2016 | by Jillian Manza, LPC, CADC
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

From the 1970s through the 1990s, many people considered marijuana to be the harmless younger brother of harder drugs. Marijuana was associated with peace, love and chilling out; a recreational pleasure that was fairly harmless in the grand scheme of things.

Today we know those assumptions were false. Not only is today’s marijuana stronger than the forms available 30 years ago, but it’s also one of the more readily available drugs for teens – even more so than alcohol.

To treat patients today, we’ve had to think outside the pipes and blunts of the old days and get creative – just like our patients who’ve found new ways to get high from marijuana without actually smoking it.

How marijuana has changed over the years

We battle the “it’s just weed” argument with our adolescent patients every day. But research has shifted our perspective about today’s marijuana.

For instance, with the availability of medical marijuana in Illinois, we’re able to study its effects versus “street” marijuana in a more controlled way. One of the major differences between the two is the amount of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical in marijuana that provides the high) in the drugs. Street marijuana has a higher level of THC, and we find more teens using it as a coping mechanism to alleviate or mask symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD or other mental illnesses.

Throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, there are distinct patterns of how THC levels in marijuana have increased. Our patients’ parents have to understand that the stuff their kids are buying isn’t the same marijuana they remember from back in the day. The higher the level of THC, the quicker addiction develops.

Additionally, kids are getting more creative in their quests to get high. We’re seeing teens coming up with new ways to extract THC. Teens are extracting the THC from marijuana and putting it into different forms to get high, including e-cigarettes, vaping, oils and dabbing (THC concentrated by an extraction method using butane gas). These methods often provide a more intense euphoria than smoking marijuana.

Detecting when teens are using these new methods can be difficult. They don’t require a lot of paraphernalia and tend not to have the skunky smell associated with traditional marijuana use. In fact, they’re often odorless. It’s not as easy as going through a teen’s room looking for pipes or bags. Parents must pay attention to the big picture – how kids are functioning at school, and with friends and family.

How common is marijuana use?

In my experience, most of our teen patients join our substance use programs with a history of marijuana use. I can’t remember the last teen I had who hadn’t tried or used it. In 2016, about half of our adolescent patients used just marijuana. A December 2015 Chicago Tribune article reported that about 21 percent of high school seniors had used marijuana in the previous month; a number that has stayed relatively stable over the years, as drinking and cigarette smoking numbers have declined.

Many parents are surprised at how easy it is for kids to get marijuana. Years ago, alcohol was the drug of choice for many teens. Today we’re seeing a shift from kids who don’t drink alcohol but use marijuana instead. Often we’ll hear teens say that their parents use marijuana, or they’ve seen their older siblings and friends use it.

Whether these kids progress to other drugs is often dependent upon the age they enter treatment. For example, many of our 14- to 15-year-olds use just marijuana. By the time they’re 17 or 18, they’ve often progressed to other substances.

This supports the stance that marijuana absolutely is a gateway drug. When teens hang out with others who use, it’s only a matter of time before someone brings another drug to the party. When the weed runs out, they look for something else to give them the next high. That’s how many of our kids transition to other drugs, such as opioids, cocaine or other street drugs, and end up causing even more damage to their developing brains.

The younger a person enters treatment and gets sober, the higher the recovery rate on the brain. Recent research suggests the brain continues to develop until a person is 25. Teens’ brains are still changing and growing and, with treatment, we can still change the course of that development into a process of recovery. Teens who enter treatment have a leg up on adults whose brains take much longer to heal from years of drug abuse.

How to spot marijuana use in teens

Teens will say, “I’m not physically addicted to it; therefore, it’s not an addiction.” But it’s not that simple. Addiction is when a drug begins to impact a person’s behavior and life. In teens, we focus on three areas:

  • School performance: Grades are slipping, or the teen isn’t showing up for class or activities they once enjoyed.
  • Family relationships: The teen withdraws and spends more time in their room or basement, avoiding interactions with family.
  • Social interactions: Teens spend less time with friends and more time alone, or they begin to spend time with an entirely different crowd.

We often find that marijuana use impacts these three areas because there is an underlying condition, such as anxiety or depression. Marijuana use can exacerbate these conditions and lead to further trouble at home, school or even the legal system.

In these cases, we recommend teens join our dual diagnosis program to address not only marijuana use, but also underlying behavioral health conditions. When marijuana is no longer effective for curbing anxiety or depression symptoms, teens may feel like they have to be high constantly. Eventually, the high from marijuana is no longer enough, and the underlying conditions worsen.

Like all other substances, we see some physical withdrawal symptoms in the first few days of abstinence, including:

  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Tremors
  • Excessive sweating
  • Insomnia

These symptoms typically last a week or two but can extend to a month or more for some patients. We watch for these symptoms, even though our program focuses more on the long-term effects of marijuana use. With psychologically addictive drugs like marijuana, patients’ thought processes are most affected: preoccupation, trouble focusing, anger, depression, and vivid dreams or nightmares. 

We see patients for the first month in the dual diagnosis program and then patients go on for further treatment, as the recovery period is considered the first year of sobriety. It’s an ongoing process to help teens learn to cope with the thoughts and emotions that arise as they learn to live without marijuana.

During treatment, we help teens and their families identify and avoid triggers that could lead to drug use, and we work on coping skills to keep drug use from becoming an option. We also ensure their underlying conditions are treated appropriately, as a history of illnesses such as depression, anxiety or ADHD increases the likelihood of relapse.

If your teen needs help to deal with marijuana addiction, fill out this assessment form online, and one of our team members will contact you. You also can call us at 630-305-5027.

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