DAYTON — As Washington and Colorado approach their two-year anniversaries of having legalized recreational marijuana, the long-term social effects of the new laws remain unclear.
But many medical professionals and community advocates are highly concerned about the effect legalization might have on teenage drug use.
A 2012 survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that while use of several drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, has fallen among high schoolers in recent years, teenage marijuana use has remained relatively stable.
The study also showed a drop in the perceived risk of marijuana use among teenagers, with 20 percent of 12th-graders surveyed seeing occasional use as harmful. Some drug researchers predict this trend could be linked with increased use of marijuana over time.
“We have normalized it so much, we’ve increased the acceptability without increasing knowledge of the risks,” said Peggy Gutierrez, who directs Dayton’s Coalition for Youth and Family, an organization focused on preventing drug and alcohol abuse among teens. “We used to hear parents say, ‘At least they’re only drinking alcohol, not smoking that pot stuff.’ Now we hear them say, ‘At least they’re only smoking pot.’”
Though opposed to Initiative 502 from the beginning, Gutierrez acknowledged marijuana’s legal status is no longer the most pressing issue for Washington’s anti-drug advocates.
“It’s too late to debate that. The law is the law,” she said.
Instead, the coalition is using its federal Drug-Free Communities Grant to spread more awareness about marijuana’s potential harmful effects on teenagers. Last month Leslie Walker, chief of the Adolescent Medicine division at Seattle Childrens’ Hospital, spoke about teen substance abuse in a lecture at Dayton’s Liberty Theater.
“Teens don’t perceive it to be as risky as they did, even two years ago,” Walker said. “When the perceived risk goes down, we see use go way up.”
One aspect of that change in perception, Walker noted, is that some teenagers perceive cannabis products sold at licensed dispensaries to be more legitimate than street drugs, when in reality regulation of the content of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, is still a hazy issue.
“They think the product is safer, more regulated ... It’s no more regulated than it was before,” she said.
Along with that lack of regulation comes risks for children and adults alike, as in Colorado, where some pediatric hospitals saw a recent spike in children admitted for unknowingly overdosing on edible forms of marijuana.
According to a study conducted last year by Colorado drug researchers, the cases usually involved children consuming marijuana in edible forms, from parents’ or grandparents’ medical stash. The overdosing children usually recovered within a day or two and experienced no lasting side effects.
“This is not your grandma’s marijuana. It is much more potent and it’s being developed in so many more ways that are dangerous,” cautioned Gutierrez.
Licensed dispensaries are producing and selling marijuana in new and varied edible forms, from cookies to chocolate bars. The high THC content of such products can produce more pronounced effects on users, especially when not consumed at the recommended dosage.
Walker, like many others in her field, isn’t exactly pleased with the growing popular perception of marijuana as natural or safe, or the new ways it’s being packaged and sold, sometimes in wrapping designed to look similar to popular name-brand candy bars. However, she at least welcomes the opportunity for more open discussion about drug use in the community.
“One good thing with legalization is we have a dialogue,” she said. “Before I came (to Washington) no one wanted to talk about drugs, now people want to know what we should do with adolescents and their brains and drugs.”
Scott Munson, director of drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic Sundown M Ranch in Yakima, said he sees about 350 youths each year for treatment, 90 percent of them checking in for marijuana addictions that have interfered with their school and family lives in some way.
A 2013 study by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that teens who were heavy marijuana users had abnormal changes in their brain structures and performed poorly on memory tasks, which can affect academic performance and everyday functioning.
With marijuana increasingly perceived as less dangerous by the general public, Munson predicts a wider range of people, including teenagers, will use the drug, some of whom may develop addictions.
“To think that it’s not going to have an effect on our kids and somehow we’re going to be able to manage (legalization) in a meaningful way is just not correct,” said Munson. “Whether it’s motivation or brain development, it’s definitely clearly going to have a negative effect on them.”
As local governments in Washington approach regulation of the growing and sale of marijuana in different ways, different communities may also have to take different approaches to tackling underage drug use.
For a community like Dayton, where surveys have shown use of marijuana and alcohol among high schoolers to be higher than the statewide average, the issue is especially pressing for some residents.
“Our priorities need to shift if we want to have an impact on our kids,” said Dayton resident Sue Bell, who attended Walker’s talk.
Emily Lin-Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8310.
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