Pubdate: Mon, 26 Apr 2004
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2004 Los Angeles Times
Author: Benedict Carey, Times Staff Writer
Facts: Marijuana Potency
Cannabis and Drug Treatment


Use of Highly Potent Types of Pot Appears to Be Sending More Youths To
the ER and into Rehab Programs.

The high-potency marijuana now widely available in cities and some
small towns is causing an increasing number of teenagers -- and some
preteens -- to land in drug treatment centers or emergency rooms,
recent government statistics suggest.

The numbers are not conclusive, experts say, but have renewed
scientific interest in and debate about the risks of marijuana use.

"The stereotypes of marijuana smoking are way out of date," said
Michael Dennis, a research psychologist in Bloomington, Ill. "The kids
we see are not only smoking stronger stuff at a younger age but their
pattern of use might be three to six blunts -- the equivalent of three
or four joints each -- just for themselves, in a day. That's got
nothing to do with what Mom or Dad did in high school. It might as
well be a different drug."

Though overall marijuana use in minors has declined slightly since the
mid-1990s, recently released statistics from hospitals and treatment
centers suggest that the drug is causing many young users serious
problems. Late last year, federal health officials reported that the
number of marijuana-related emergency room visits for children age 12
to 17 had more than tripled since 1994, to 7,535 in 2001, the latest
year for which figures were available. The most common reason for the
visit was an "unexpected reaction" to the drug. "Overdose" was cited
in 10% of these cases, "chronic effects" in 6% and "accident or
injury" in 4%.

The latest U.S. Health and Human Services Department data show that
marijuana or hashish use is, by far, the most common reason why
children age 12 to 17 were placed in licensed public or private
treatment centers, accounting for more than 60% of reported cases in

In an analysis published last week, researchers at Columbia
University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse
calculated that the treatment rate for cannabis dependence or habitual
use in youngsters had jumped 142% in the last decade.

It is too early to tell whether these statistics truly represent a
surge in habitual use, experts said. Admission figures could be skewed
by changes in the way some states collect data and report it to the
federal government. Forced drug treatment is also a way many teens
avoid juvenile detention after a drug arrest.

Most children who smoke marijuana are occasional users, experts said.
And there is little evidence that a heavy marijuana user who quits the
habit will experience the kind of physical withdrawal symptoms
reported by heroin or cocaine users.

Because marijuana seized by federal authorities today is about twice
as potent as it was in the 1980s, health officials are taking the drug
more seriously.

Although some scientists doubt that marijuana induces real physical
dependence, many top drug researchers have concluded otherwise. "There
is no question marijuana can be addictive; that argument is over,"
said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug
Abuse. "The most important thing right now is to understand the
vulnerability of young, developing brains to these increased
concentrations of cannabis."

More than 50 government-funded studies of cannabis are underway, and
Volkow has pledged agency funds to investigate areas related to
regular marijuana use. These include:

. Effect of cannabis on the young brain. Doctors have little
understanding of how regular marijuana use alters the biological
development of the brain. Clinicians who treat heavy users say that
the earlier a person starts taking the drug, the more quickly a habit
takes hold. "The risk of becoming addicted is far higher for a child
in junior high than it is for someone who tries it in high school,"
said Dennis, a researcher at Chestnut Health Systems, a large
behavioral care provider in Bloomington. Regular use can also
exacerbate symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and
trigger latent mental disorders, some doctors believe.

. Medications to help break the habit. In recent years, doctors have
had some success treating narcotic addiction with drugs such as
buprenorphine, which is used for heroin dependence. They have done
very little testing of drugs to ease marijuana craving.

. Genetic susceptibility. In a recent study of 198 young people,
doctors in New Zealand found that those who reported enjoying their
first-time use of marijuana were more likely to develop a habit later
on. The researchers said their findings suggested that some people
might be genetically vulnerable to addiction. Volkow is encouraging
researchers to isolate genes that may contribute to the

Research into the addictive qualities of marijuana has always been
controversial. In the 1970s, psychiatrists documented flu-like
symptoms in heavy cannabis users withdrawing from the drug. But the
symptoms were so mild compared with the agony of withdrawal from
heroin, cocaine or nicotine that many doctors dismissed the studies as
inconsequential. Others charged that government researchers were
attempting to demonize what was a mostly harmless drug.

"But there's stuff out there now that's 10, 20, even 50 times as
potent we could get for research in the '70s," said Dr. Reese Jones, a
professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco. "It's like studying the
effects of high doses of alcohol using 3.2% beer. Now, marijuana is
more analogous to 100-proof vodka. Not every kid's getting that, but
the ones who do and come into treatment will get sick when they go off
the drug. And when you give them marijuana, they feel better."

Doctors only vaguely understand how marijuana affects the body. It can
act as a stimulant or depressant. It eases pain, as opiates do, but it
can also increase anxiety and induce paranoia. Its most psychoactive
ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, acts throughout the brain,
and the plant contains hundreds of other chemicals whose effects are

Using brain-imaging technology, scientists have shown in recent years
that THC is especially active in the cerebellum, which helps regulate
movement, and in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that
enables us to make judgments and inhibit impulses. "These findings can
help explain how chronic marijuana use causes some behavior changes --
such as why intoxication can lead to automobile accidents," said
Volkow, who did some of the imaging research.

Steven Sussman, a professor of preventive medicine at USC, began
tracking a group of 339 teenage marijuana smokers in the late 1990s.
All the young men and women were heavy users when the study began.
Five years later, 42% have quit and 58% still smoke frequently,
Sussman reports in a paper due out later this year. The difference
between the two groups is partly social: The quitters were more likely
to have gotten married than the others and had fewer marijuana-using
friends throughout the study. But those who managed to quit also
tended to use less than their peers from the beginning.

In short, dosage matters. And if frequent marijuana users are getting
more THC, doctors say, then it's time old assumptions about the
harmlessness of the drug were reexamined. 
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