(Second of two parts)
By Will Wooton
The largest effect of marijuana is neurological. The main psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC targets the specific brain cells or cannabinoid receptors that are in the highest concentration found in sections of the brain dealing with pleasure, learning, concentration, coordination and memory. These areas show measurably lower functioning when someone smokes not only for that day but also for weeks afterward.
Few drugs have such a long-lasting effect in the brain. This is due to the brain being made up largely of fatty tissue and THC binds and is stored in fat cells. The more someone ingests the more is stored. This is why marijuana is detected in drug tests for much longer than most other drugs.
Anytime you artificially introduce chemicals that create a flood of dopamine in the brain there is a potential for dependence. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and sends signals from one nerve cell to another. In the case of marijuana, THC targeting these receptors creates the “high” and a feeling of euphoria is created. Anytime you have a drug that creates such pleasure there is a possibility for abuse.
Now I’d like to be clear: not everyone who smokes marijuana will become addicted. Addiction doesn’t work like that. Some people can ingest drugs with relativity little effect on their lives. For some it takes control. Brains respond differently. People have different psychological experiences, different genetics. Some have a glass of wine at dinner and some drink until they lose everything. The line of addiction is crossed when the substance that is abused affects a person’s life in significant ways and they still don’t stop.
Marijuana is no different. It can be used with little effect being shown on a person’s life or it can tear apart a family. Since I work with teens and by extension families, I’ve seen kids choose smoking pot over friends, sports, school, jobs and just about anything worthwhile. It is clear that marijuana use by teens is much higher than in the general adult population. Ask any teenager how hard it is to buy marijuana at school and most will tell you it’s available daily.
Downplaying the damage that smoking marijuana can do only hurts kids. Teenage brains are still developing into the early 20s. An area of the teenager’s brain that is fairly well developed early on is the area that seeks pleasure and reward. This means that early on we know what feels good and how to seek it out. We know to smoke marijuana feels good and that the more we do it the better we feel. The section that takes the longest to develop is a section of the brain that thinks about outcomes, forms judgment. Also longest to develop are sections that regulate and control impulses or emotions. So what we have is a brain that knows what feels good yet doesn’t have the maturity to think through or control emotional decisions. As with anything developing, adding chemicals to a brain has a cost.
Teens are more likely to have addiction issues the younger that they use as a kid. Marijuana stunts progression of brain development thereby creating psychosocial changes in perception of the world around them. If you alter someone’s ability to make good choices throughout life you can bet the lasting effect will hurt us all when they are adults.
We all base our reactions and thoughts mostly on personal first-hand experience. Many of us in this country have smoked marijuana. Many of us know people who do it in a seemingly harmless way. In thinking about the idea of legalization I hope we can all dig deeper. Our own arrogance that because we did or do it and are fine doesn’t mean that it’s that way for everyone. The message that our teens are hearing is that it’s safe to use. Factual-based conversations will be needed, but saying marijuana is natural or hurting our economy by having it illegal or that it’s safe is all just untrue.
Wooton is director of Pacific Treatment Services and co-author of “Bring Your Teen Back From The Brink”. PTS is a substance abuse company working with teens and young adults. Website: