Marijuana occupies a unique status in the American drug landscape. One the one hand, there’s a consensus that it’s an addictive drug that must be kept away from teens, and on the other hand, it’s touted for its medicinal effects, and in some states, it is legal with a prescription or even for adult recreational use. But the legal life of marijuana aside, this drug is effective at maintaining its popularity.
]The Results of the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that marijuana was the number one most used drug in that year. In the month prior to the 2013 survey, there were 19.8 million marijuana users (7.5 percent of the population aged 12 or older). The study noted that the rate increased from 2002 to 2011, which ranged from 5.8 to 7.3 percent. The survey also revealed that Americans who use illicit drugs are likely to also consume marijuana; in 2013, 80.6 percent of current illicit substance abusers used marijuana. Further, marijuana is successful at recruiting new users; in the 12 and older age group, 2.4 million Americans used marijuana for the first time within a prior 12-month period, which breaks down to an average of approximately 6,600 new users each day.
Marijuana includes the dried flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. This plant features a mind-altering chemical known as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannibol).
The survey also included a focus on substance use among adolescents ages 12 to 17 and discovered the following:
- About 7.1 percent of this group were current users of marijuana.
- Approximately 2.2 percent were current unlawful users of psychotherapeutic drugs (this drug class includes painkillers, stimulants, tranquilizers, and sedatives).
- Regarding hallucinogens, 0.6 percent of this group were current users, while inhalant users amounted to 0.5 percent, 0.2 percent currently used cocaine, and 0.1 percent used heroin.
- The percentage of teens using marijuana varied by age group; among 12-to-13-year-old individuals, 1 percent used marijuana, while in the 14-to-15-year-old age group, marijuana use jumped to 5.8 percent. It increased again to 14.2 percent in the 16-to-17-year-old age group.
The current survey results reveal that marijuana is a formidable adversary in the war on drugs. As the research illuminates, marijuana is the most popular drug among all age groups, recruits thousands of new users each day, and as preteens grow to teenagers, the rate of consumption increases. Teen and parent education is necessary to stem the rising tide of marijuana abuse and will continue to require intervention efforts not only from youth and their families, but also from schools, the government, and advocacy groups.
Marijuana Consumption Methods
From a consumption standpoint, marijuana is versatile. Undoubtedly, unlawful users learn about different ways to use marijuana from word of mouth and informal online forums, while lawful prescription users can openly exchange recipes and tips on various forms of marijuana consumption. Different methods of marijuana intake include:
- Using a vaporizer
- Consuming it in foods/edibles
- Drinking it in tonics and tinctures
- Drinking it in sodas and teas
- Eating or smoking wax or hash
The decriminalization of marijuana and the lawful use of medicinal marijuana remain controversial topics. Marijuana, like prescription opioids, now exists on two American tracks, a legal and an illegal one. The development of new products made from marijuana may be ideal for legal users, but they can work to increase the illegal proliferation of marijuana and add information to the public domain that youth can exploit. The politics of marijuana aside, one thing is clear – as lawful marijuana consumption grows and develops, equally forceful efforts must be made to curb the unlawful use of this drug, especially among preteens and teens.
Marijuana and the Teen Brain
Whether smoked or ingested in alternate ways, the THC in marijuana passes into the bloodstream and is eventually carried into the brain. Once in the brain, the THC acts on brain cells known as cannabinoid receptors. These receptors usually interact with chemicals that occur naturally in the body, like anandamide, which is similar in structure to THC. Natural chemicals, like anandamide, are part of a neurological network – the endocannabinoid system – which plays an essential role in the healthy development and functioning of the brain.
In short, THC is a drug that occurs outside the body, but it happens to fit into the endocannabinoid system like a key in a lock, even if it wasn’t the body’s intended key.
A 2013 research study at Northwestern Medicine found that teen marijuana use can negatively impact brain development. The study focused on teens who smoked marijuana every day for approximately three years, and discovered abnormal changes to the brain that related to working memory. These consequences do not simply disappear after the marijuana use is discontinued; the study found that brain abnormalities persisted two years after the marijuana use ended. Alarmingly, the study also drew a connection between the age marijuana use begins and potential brain damage; the younger the smoker’s age when they began to chronically and heavily smoke marijuana, the more abnormally restructured regions of their brain became. This study serves as an important reminder to teens and parents that when it comes to marijuana use, just saying “no” is the way to keep your brain healthy and your young life on track.
Marijuana’s Increasing Potency
For the last three decades, the strength of marijuana has been rising. One source of information about the potency of marijuana comes from the annual Cannabis Cup competition, where enthusiastic marijuana users and expert growers meet. At the competition, the strongest strains of the drug clocked in with a THC content of approximately 25 percent. However, a study at the University of Mississippi that tests marijuana seized by federal law enforcement agents found batches with a THC content as high as 37 percent. According to Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, since 1972, the average THC content has dramatically increased from less than 1 percent to 3 to 4 percent in the 1990s, to almost 13 percent today.
The risk of marijuana overdose is considerably lower than the risk of overdose with other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. However, as Dr. ElSohly discusses, high THC potency can be dangerous because of the problems associated with taking a potent mind-altering drug. For instance, teen users may not be able to gauge their level of intoxication and decide to operate their vehicles, with potentially dangerous and even fatal results.
Increasing potency is also concerning from a mental health standpoint. According to Dr. Stuart Gitlow, President of the American Society for Addiction Medicine, an estimated one in every 100 people using marijuana with a high THC content will experience psychotic symptoms. The increased strength of THC may also increase the dependency or addictive potential of marijuana and lead to heavier use of this drug.
While withdrawal from marijuana isn’t life-threatening, some users have reported suffering anxiety, nausea, and insomnia. Although addiction may not be a central issue to marijuana use, the ongoing illicit popularity of this drug and its increasing potency along with its growing public acceptance (for its lawful consumption and medicinal use) creates a perfect storm for abuse.
Marijuana Dependence Treatment
As the trend to use marijuana continues, so too do treatment admissions. In 1993, 7 percent of admissions were for marijuana treatment, and that number rose to 16 percent in 2003. Studies of marijuana treatment outcomes in the adult population show that outpatient treatment can reduce consumption and instigate abstinence. Psychotherapy that focuses on how to cope with cravings as well as how to develop healthy life skills has proven to be effective in marijuana treatment.
Medications are generally not used to wean adults or adolescents off marijuana dependency. Treatment programs may offer over-the-counter pain relievers or other non-prescription medications to treat uncomfortable side effects of withdrawal, such as nausea. Outpatient treatment of the youth population usually features a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy and also family therapy. Combined, these therapies can teach adolescents life skills, how to make non-drug-dependent decisions, and also help them to repair any damaged lines of communication and understanding with parents and loved ones.
As a rule of thumb, many adolescents admitted for substance abuse treatment include marijuana in their use but do not partake exclusively in consumption of this drug. For this reason, many treatment admissions are not for marijuana abuse alone. However, at treatment admission intake, counselors will learn about the adolescent’s drug use history and form a specialized treatment plan. Even if a treatment plan centers on addressing a substance other than marijuana, such as painkillers or other opioids, an effective and well-structured drug treatment program will also touch on the motivations underlying marijuana.
According to research published inAddiction Science and Clinical Practice, approximately 50 percent of individuals who enter treatment for marijuana abuse are under the age of 25.Adolescents who use marijuana are at an increased risk of a host of problems, including:
- Poor health, including exposure to sexually transmitted diseases
- Unplanned pregnancy
- Early dropout from high school
- Legal troubles
- Decreased motivation to pursue educational or work goals
Using health insurance or paying out of pocket for treatment is a reality of recovery. Health insurance is a legally binding contractual agreement between the insurer and the insured, and the terms of that contract govern. Those terms at times may not seem logical or fair, but they dictate events, and for this reason, it is always advisable for an insured to contact her insurance carrier to learn if and how rehab treatment is covered.
While most insurance companies may not cover marijuana treatment programs, they may cover treatment for other substances on which the prospective patient may be dependent. A diagnostic intake is necessary, from a treatment and insurance perspective, to learn what substances are being abused and what treatment plan is necessary. For cases where the substance abuser uses two or more drugs, the insurance company must be consulted to decide how this situation is handled.
- Inquire with the drug treatment center as to whether they offer sliding scale rates (sensitive to income) or can offer a lower rate based on your specific financial circumstances.
- Ask if financing is available to break payments up over an agreed upon term (usually with an initial large down payment).
- Consider a personal loan from a bank with which you have an established history as a client.
- Borrow from a pension plan (consult with the plan administrator on interest rates and terms and a tax professional as there will be a federal tax penalty assessed under some circumstances).
- Although credit cards carry some of the highest interest rates on the market, consider charging treatment. Cash advances are generally not advisable as they usually carry even higher interest rates than purchases.
Whether an adult or an adolescent, marijuana abuse, especially in light of the increasing THC content of newer strains, can set one on a dangerous path. Although marijuana may appreciate a better public reception today than earlier in its history, positive associations stem from its purported medicinal effects, not its harmful ones. This drug can lead to physical dependency, resulting in the need to consume more of this drug, which is an expense that detracts from productive uses of time, money, and one’s brain. When it comes to illicit marijuana use, the risks seriously outweigh the highs.
For individuals who solely abuse marijuana, in the event insurance will not pay for treatment and sufficient funds are not at hand, consideration must be given to liquefying any assets or utilizing any available resources. In the case of adolescent marijuana users, parents will have to assume the bill as well as find a way to afford it. But when it comes to one’s health, especially an adolescent’s, everyone would agree that treatment is priceless; however, cost is, of course, a concern. There are various possible sources to help finance marijuana treatment.
 “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.”(2014). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014.
 “Drug Facts: Marijuana.” (Revised Jan. 2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014.
 Bergland, C. (Mar. 30, 2014). “Heavy Marijuana Use Alters Teenage Brain Structure.” Psychology Today. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014.
 Hellerman, C. (Aug. 9, 2013). “Is Super Weed Super Bad?” CNN. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014.
 Budney, A., et al. (Dec. 2007). “Marijuana Dependence and Its Treatment.” Addiction Science and Clinical Practice. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014.