The Drug Class Blog

Feb 15

Marijuana Effects and why age matters

Watching the media try to deliver information on marijuana is very interesting, the pro-marijuana folks keep delivering more on potential benefits, here is some more info you need to know.

Marijuana’s effects and why age matters

Dr. Gary Wenk is a professor of psychology and neuroscience, among other subject areas, at the Ohio State University. Wenk has covered topics including marijuana’s effect on the brain in his research and contributed writings to Psychology Today, as well as a TEDx Talk 

To understand how the drug affects people, it’s important to note that humans have an endogenous version of marijuana. “Which means we have a lot of different responses to marijuana,” he said. “It affects our immune system as well as the brain.” Unlike nicotine or caffeine, marijuana isn’t a stimulant. Nor is it a depressant. “It ends up not falling into either category,” [it is actually both] Wenk said. Which makes it difficult to answer what exactly it does in the human body, and its effects aren’t always dramatic.

For example, sperm count is reduced in males who smoke, but not outside a normal level. It can change the amount of hormones in males and females and reduces the white blood cell count, but again, not outside the normal range. “So, you can see the challenge,” Wenk said. “People have used what we know from the science about marijuana to make both sides of the argument, and neither side is wrong.” But, there are clear downsides. Marijuana has estrogen-like properties that can lead to breast development in young males and hinder it in females, he said. Young users can end up with dementia late in life. It also has the potential to produce psychosis in those who use a lot of it, he said. But, effects vary from person to person.

“We understand that if you carry a genetic vulnerability (to psychosis), smoking marijuana could unmask that vulnerability,” he said. Part of Wenk’s research looks at whether marijuana affects people of different ages differently, and from what he has found, it does. “We certainly know that the younger your brain, the more likely you are to be impaired by smoking marijuana,” Wenk said. Though, research he has shows small amounts of the drug can possibly be beneficial to older brains. “If your brain is young, it could be harmful,” he said. “But if your brain is old, it could be healthy.” And it’s the same mechanism that is helpful to an older brain that proves detrimental in a young one.

Every day, the human brain makes about 7,000 new neurons, a process called neurogenesis. As you get older, that number drops to near zero. “And that contributes to memory problems and depression,” Wenk said. Marijuana can have a reversing effect on this tapering of neurogenesis. But, it turns out to be a very bad thing in a young brain, when neurogenesis is functioning properly. “Essentially, the marijuana that they smoke screws it all up,” he said. “It’s too much stimulation. Things aren’t working correctly. You interfere. You introduce noise, and so the brain doesn’t develop correctly.”

Though the jury is still out on long-term effects on those who start as young as middle school-age, research shows marijuana changes how young brains respond to rewarding things. “For most people, when you eat something pleasurable, we get a certain amount of mental reward from that,” he said. “It tastes good, it feels good, you enjoy it.”

Marijuana amplifies the need for more pleasure in young users. “It seems that their reward system has been a bit skewed in that they need somewhat more powerful, rewarding things to feel the same amount of euphoria,” he said. “What that leads to is that we see that people tend to gain weight more because they need to eat bigger pieces of chocolate and they need to eat more ice cream to get the same degree of reward.” In line with this effect, Wenk said there is a subset of young marijuana users who will go on to use more powerful euphorigenic drugs to meet their higher need. “

You’ve heard many times marijuana is a gateway drug to these other drugs, and that tends to be the underlying reason why,” he said. But there are gateways that lead to marijuana, too. Wenk said most users smoke cigarettes before they smoke marijuana, and often drink coffee before they start cigarettes. “We now understand that sodas are a gateway drug to coffee,” he said. “So you can see where this goes. They’re all gateway drugs, you know. Where does one stop?”

Wenk suggests parents refrain from introducing coffee and cigarettes into their children’s environment because it will predispose them to marijuana use. “Having the parents clean up their own act might help the kids avoid it too,” he said.

Teens, young adults and marijuana

Lynne Grey, a licensed addiction specialist and professional counselor for Partners Behavioral Health Management in Gastonia, agreed most children who use marijuana also have used cigarettes and alcohol. She, too, said these are gateways to the drug. “One of the interesting things that we found is that cigarette use and alcohol use is actually declining,” Grey said. Cigarettes, it appears, are no longer “cool.” “But the abuse of marijuana actually increased since 2010 between sixth- and eighth-graders,” she said. Though it has decreased significantly for 10th- to 12th-graders, a good sign that intervention is working in high school, there is not enough being done in middle school. The youngest patient Frye, from Family NET, has seen is 11, and the majority are in middle school or early high school. But patients have told her their age of first use was even younger. “9 or 7 or 10,” she said.

Use doesn’t immediately become daily, but it progresses. “That’s kind of scary,” she said. “The younger someone starts using substances, the quicker they can become dependent on it.” A young child can develop a dependency in as few as six months, Frye said. One of the things Partners looks at is the perceived risk of harm a child has pertaining to a particular substance.

And the common perception is that marijuana is far less harmful than substances like alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and other, harder drugs. In fact, a large majority, 78 percent, of 12- to 17-year-olds don’t see monthly use of marijuana as harmful behavior, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) . But statistically, the earlier you start using drugs, the longer you use them. Not to mention there are very real health effects. Marijuana can cause lung and throat cancer and may cause something called amotivational syndrome. “Which is where they just lose their ambition and goals,” Grey said. It’s even possible to become addicted to or reliant upon marijuana as a coping mechanism. And while there are no physical symptoms of addiction to marijuana like withdrawal, there is a possibility for psychological addiction.

Cravings for the drug, depression and paranoia are possible side effects. As far as prevention goes, Grey said a lot of programs paint a picture of a dark figure in an alley that’s going to try to give a child drugs. “That’s not true,” she said. “It’s going to be your friend, who you’ve known since you were young. Or it’s going to be the really cool kids that you want to be friends with. So, we lose credibility when we try to say that only really bad people use drugs.” Grey’s personal opinion on how to intervene effectively is to be real and honest with children about the risks.

One way, she suggests, is for schools to step in when they see a child is struggling and refer him or her to counseling. “I think we need to talk about (how) not all drugs are created equal,” she said. “Some are more harmful to your body than others. I think we need to introduce the idea of drug treatment programs. … We criminalize drug use instead of treat it.” The best ways to keep a child off drugs are to increase what she called protective factors, like involvement in afterschool activities, clubs and sports.

Parents should make themselves aware of what their children are doing and who they are doing it with. Grey suggests even monitoring what media their children consume and what they do online. Beyond that, parents should have an open line of communication with their children and foster a trusting relationship. “There are a lot of parents that are afraid to have that conversation at all with a kid about using, whether its marijuana or alcohol or anything, but the more you educate your children and the more prepared they are … they’re going to be a step ahead,” Frye said. “It’s really not a good idea for children to use marijuana,” Grey said.

What do you think?

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