Medical marijuana fallout: Kids getting addicted to their "medicine," psychiatrist says

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Christian Thurstone, a psychiatrist with board certifications in addiction treatment and child and adolescent care, has seen plenty of news reports about why medical marijuana is a good thing -- but precious few about the potential harm it can do. That's why he wrote a provocative piece for the Denver Post about the negative aspects of this so-called wonder drug, especially as it applies to young people.

"We're seeing more teenagers coming in suffering from marijuana abuse," Thurstone notes -- including ones "saying, 'Marijuana is my medicine.'"

The spin, propagated by the medical marijuana industry, that weed has no downside troubles Thurstone.

"In the scientific community, there's no debate about whether or not marijuana is an addictive substance," he says. "We know that marijuana triggers the same parts of the brain as all other addictive substances, like nicotine, cocaine and heroin. Probably about 2 percent of adolescents have an addiction to marijuana, and we know that dependence is not just psychological but physical -- and that it includes tolerance levels. Users have to smoke more and more to get the same effect, and there's a withdrawal syndrome that lasts one to two weeks with heavy users.

"My main concern is what this is doing to our kids, our youth," he continues. "And we know that when access to substances goes up, teenagers use them with more frequency. And we also know that when the perceived harmfulness of a substance goes down, teenagers use the substance more frequently -- which may be why we're seeing more teenagers coming in due to problems with marijuana abuse."

Adding to this problem, from Thurstone's perspective, is the increasingly popular view that marijuana is actually healthful.

"There's a medical marijuana dispensary going up in my neighborhood that's going to be called 5280 Wellness," he notes. "What does that communicate to our children? That marijuana is associated with wellness. But it's not a benign drug. It's associated with aggression as part of the withdrawal syndrome, as well as risky sexual behavior that can lead to STDs and teen pregnancies. And a study in Canada showed that 80 percent of people who reported using marijuana in the past year also reported driving within an hour after smoking -- so it's no doubt associated with impaired driving and increased accidents, too."

Thurstone doesn't blame the media for the way the medical marijuana story has played out in Colorado in recent months, but he does see a dearth of reporting about the impact marijuana can have on young users. "I wanted to inject more science into this debate" with his Post op-ed, he says.

For instance, he'd like to hear more of a discussion about the impact of smoked marijuana in comparison with other methods of delivering THC.

"We know there's a benefit to oral THC, which is thought to be the active ingredient," he allows. "And for people who are too nauseous to take it in pill form, there are other methods available, like a patch and a suppository." In contrast, "smoke itself does damage, and smoked marijuana is very addictive compared to other forms of THC. The THC pill, patch and suppository produce very little euphoria and intoxication compared to marijuana, with fewer side effects in terms of addiction.

"And there's also questions about how do you dose it, what dose are you getting, and what kind of marijuana do you have? It's not like getting a prescription where we can say, 'Take one capsule twice daily.' Now people are getting the recommendation to smoke marijuana whenever they see fit. And what other medicine do we do that with?"

According to Thurstone, he's seeing more and more marijuana-addicted teens "coming in saying 'Marijuana is my medicine for anger, anxiety, depression, ADHD'" -- individuals who may or may not be part of the group "who don't medically need marijuana but who are getting it right now" because of the way the system is currently operating.

"Maybe smoking marijuana is everyone's civil right," he says. "But we also ought to have the other side of the debate: What will be the cost to all of us in making marijuana more accessible to everyone?"

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