Plucking weed by its roots: The high school marijuana epidemic
Sidney comes home from a rainy lacrosse game. It’s their fourth loss this season. Damp, dispirited and discouraged, he edges around the landfill of dirty laundry on the floor of his room. Sitting at his desk, he leans back in the chair, and opens a pack of “toffee” which he got from a dispensary in Michigan. He prefers edibles for their prolonged effect. After half an hour, he looks around the room and, this time, no longer sees the squalor. He’s relaxed, as if in a “meadow of wildflowers.”
Sidney is a senior in high school. To combat his stress and anxiety, he is prescribed 10mg of Lexapro daily. And for the past two years, Sidney has been using marijuana “when I really feel stressed or depressed because it makes me calmer. Things taste better, feel better. Music sounds better … Lexapro calms me down long term, weed [is] a short high.”
Like Sidney, 2 million US teenagers experience depression, and 6.3 million teenagers experience anxiety, reports the Department of Health and Human Services. Joan Jerome, a guidance counselor at Westlake High School, sees it daily. “There’s a lot of depression, stress and anxiety that drowns students. Sometimes, they self-medicate by using marijuana.”
Currently, U.S. teenagers use marijuana more frequently than any other drug, including tobacco and alcohol. The “Monitoring the Future Survey” follows high school drug use and reports that 44.5 percent of 12th graders have tried marijuana, 22.5 percent have used it in the past month, and an alarming 6 percent use it on a daily basis, up from 2.4 percent in 1993.
How Safe is Marijuana?
Marijuana, a.k.a Amnesia, Dope, Christmas Tree, Weed, is the dried flowers and leaves of the Cannabis Sativa plant. There are over 500 chemicals in it, but the major psychoactive ingredient is THC, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.
THC enters the bloodstream, then crosses the brain barrier in minutes. Human brains have natural cannabinoid receptors which regulate communication between brain cells. THC activates these receptors, overwhelms normal neuron firing, and creates the “high.”
Marijuana does have therapeutic uses. The plant itself is not an FDA-approved medicine, but cannabinoids, chemicals extracted from marijuana, have been purified for medical use. They help stimulate appetite in AIDS patients and relieve nausea in cancer patients. One form treats certain chronic nerve pain. Another treats seizures in some neurological disorders.
However, marijuana influences the brain and impairs memory, concentration, balance and coordination, which can be detrimental to learning, sports and driving. Studies show that students who use marijuana are more likely to get lower grades and drop out of high school than students who do not.
“Mentally,” Sidney says, “it makes me feel numb, and things don’t bother me. Physically, there’s no lasting effect. Maybe it’s bad for my lungs, but I haven’t noticed any problems. It’s not like alcohol or cigarettes … it’s natural – organic. Like tea leaves. And there’s really no downside to marijuana, other than the fact that it costs money.”
Scott Fortkamp, the School Resource Officer at Westlake High School, however, has a different view. “High schoolers have this perception that marijuana isn’t bad for them. They don’t realize how it’s harmful just like alcohol. Kids think marijuana is this organic, harmless drug that comes raw and pure from the environment. But just because something is naturally occurring from the environment doesn’t mean it is safe.”
Moreover, THC impairs decision making, which can lead to unsafe driving. Car accidents are the leading cause of U.S. teen deaths, and marijuana has become the most frequently found drug in the blood of drivers in car crashes. Drivers with detectable blood levels of marijuana are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal car crash than those without.
Are Teens at Greater Risk?
Marijuana has many detrimental long-term effects, particularly in the brain. Krista Lisdahl, Director of the Brain Imaging and Neuropsychology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says the adolescent brain can be very vulnerable to chronic marijuana use. “During teenage years, our brain is getting rid of connections that weren’t really used. … [Those years are] the last golden opportunity to make the brain as healthy and smart as possible.”
A study conducted by Duke University researchers, found that “people who began using marijuana in their teenage years and then continued to use marijuana for many years, lost about eight IQ points from childhood to adulthood, whereas those who never used marijuana did not lose any IQ points."
The potency of marijuana has increased dramatically over the years. In the 1990s, marijuana products contained on average 3.7 percent THC. Today, the average is 6.1 percent. A new form of marijuana intake, a practice called dabbing, which involves the consumption of a marijuana oil extract, usually contains 50 percent THC. Some samples exceed 80 percent.
Higher levels of THC predispose teenagers to an increased risk of addiction, as does starting marijuana early in life. The “Monitoring the Future Survey” reports that 9 percent of people who use marijuana become addicted. The rate rises to 17 percent if they start in their teens.
Does Marijuana Help Anxiety?
Sidney uses marijuana to relieve anxiety. Does that work? No. It can be harmful.
Marijuana can throw teenagers who struggle with psychological illness into cycles of anxiety, euphoria, then back to anxiety. It carries teenagers away from their mental problems, but relief is temporary and withdrawal exacerbates their condition. While marijuana overdose does not lead to death, withdrawal causes anxiety, irritability and sleeplessness. It also stimulates further drug cravings. Additionally, acute intoxication causes the unbearable symptoms of “unease and shaking, anxiety, paranoia or hallucinations, and in rare cases, extreme psychotic reactions,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Sidney thinks all the concerns about marijuana use, withdrawal and dependency are brouhaha. “There can be kind of a mentally numbing effect. Sometimes when I’m really jacked up on a high dose, I get out of touch with reality. And all my problems and worries aren’t mine anymore.”
Jerome, the WHS guidance counselor, believes one of the leading factors in teenagers normalizing marijuana use is increased societal tolerance. “If society continues to make marijuana use a norm, this will continue in high school. We have to reevaluate our actions as a society.”
Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use for those over 21. In 2015, an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana failed in Ohio; the main concern was not the safety of marijuana use but for the fear of a business monopoly. Cleveland.com estimates that Ohio’s legalization of recreational marijuana would bring in $23 million in sales tax alone annually.
What is Being Done in Schools?
To curtail the spread and use of marijuana, several parochial schools in Cleveland have mandatory hair testing for illicit drugs. Westlake High School, like many public schools, emphasizes health and safety through education, guidance and peer group support.
Officer Fortkamp explains, “We’ve got the D.A.R.E. [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] program which starts in elementary school. We’ve got groups like SADD [Students Against Destructive Decisions] and Leadership Challenge. … We, the police force and the high school, are always researching new ways and new programs to bring awareness and education to students and families.”
Jerome says, “Modern teens have a huge range of stressors, more than ever before, but they’re smart, they’re determined, and they have more knowledge than we ever did back in my day. I have faith that they can pull themselves out of this.”
Megan Stewart is a senior at Westlake High School