Rick Green: Teen Pot Use at 30-Year Peak – Are We Too Lax?

Decriminalizing pot and opening the door to medical marijuana seems like the right thing. We've wasted millions of taxpayer dollars in a futile effort to block use of something that seems less harmful than alcohol.

I'm sure of it, just like I can't think of anything more pointless than a small-time pot arrest.

And yet.

Is there some threshold we are crossing here, particularly for those of us who grew up in the largely benign marijuana haze of the 1970s and 1980s, who now have teenage children living in a far different illicit drug world?

"Marijuana is not as innocent as it is being perceived,'' said Yifrah Kaminer, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Connecticut Health Center and who directs something called the Adolescent Treatment of Marijuana Study. Kaminer spends a good deal of his time trying to help area kids who can't kick their marijuana addiction. Often, they come from communities where folks don't want to talk about a surge in marijuana use.

"The law has never been so lax,'' Kaminer said. "The messages are so confusing."

In the last few weeks, we've heard about state officials drawing a plan for dispensing medical marijuana in response to a new law approved by the General Assembly this year. Last week, a man showed up in downtown Hartford with a prototype vending machine for pot. A teacher and lacrosse coach at Northwest Catholic High School was arrested for allegedly running a homegrown marijuana operation out of his Bloomfield home. President Obama's youthful dalliance with weed has been meticulously detailed in a new biography by David Maraniss.

"It's all over the place. These kids tell us marijuana is fine,'' Kaminer said, noting that's not quite the case: the concentration of pot's active ingredient has spiked, making today's weed far more potent than those joints at the Dead shows back in '79. "This is going to become a bigger problem."

I stopped by Kaminer's office because he's been telling me for months that society's increasingly casual attitudes toward weed may be leading us down a disastrous path, at least when it comes to creating a fresh crop of teenage pot addicts. I'm troubled but not convinced, since it seems like decades of screwed-up drug laws have pretty effectively created generations of addicts and needlessly ruined lives for relatively petty offenses.

But I have a hard time dismissing Kaminer.

"We've seen more cases of early onset schizophrenia. [Marijuana] increases the chance for early onset schizophrenia by 10 percent,'' Kaminer said. "This is one of the issues that is a major concern for us.''

Kaminer warns about the effect of pot on the still-developing teenage brain, about the danger of driving under the influence of pot being as risky as driving drunk and the link between drug use and psychiatric disorders in young people.

A researcher who has been studying addiction and marijuana for decades, Kaminer treats hundreds of teenagers from throughout the Hartford area who are part of his study. These kids can be chronic smokers of marijuana – suffering from "cannabis use disorder" – who come on their own or who are referred to his program by the courts.

Kaminer's worry is buttressed by a long-running study of adolescent behavior at the University of Michigan that shows a steady rise in marijuana use by teenagers across the land during the last decade. The "Monitoring the Future" study reports that daily pot use is at a 30-year peak among teenagers – about 1 in every 15 high school seniors report toking up at least daily.

More significantly, the survey of nearly 50,000 students in 8th,10th and 12th grade also shows that fewer teenagers see what scientists call "perceived risk'' from using marijuana. Disapproval rates have also dropped, suggesting usage will continue to rise. Students in the U.S. trail only those in France and Monaco in use of marijuana or hashish during the last 30 days, the Michigan researchers recently reported.

The issue isn't whether adults use pot. That's their business, Kaminer said. What's missing from the discussion is what's happening to our teenagers.

"When we make decisions such as approving medical marijuana and reducing fines, the message we send to adolescents is 'No big deal','' Kaminer said. "How can we then ask them not to use it?"

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