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Pothead: THC and the teen brain

New research presented in Aspen shows that THC can have detrimental effects on developing adolescent brains. Marijuana use can cause lifelong anxiety, depression and apathy.

At an event last month hosted by Aspen High School, Dr. Amir Levine discussed his research on the harmful effects of cannabis use on the teen brain. The panel included law enforcement officers, school administrators and child psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Birnkrant discussing Dr. Amir Levine’s National Institute of Health-sponsored research into the developing adolescent brain.

The premise is that as the brain develops — especially the portions that affect emotions and motivation — marijuana can permanently change a person’s cognitive functions.

Moderator Dr. Jonathan Birnkrant sees the effects first hand through his work with adolescent patients in the valley.

“In my practice, I unfortunately get to see a lot of these things that the research is bearing out. The issues around anxiety, issues around memory, difficulties in school, motivation… that’s a big issue as well.

Dr. Kathy Klug is the college counselor for Aspen High School. She says bringing Levine to talk was a great chance to provide information to students, parents and educators to combat the plethora of promotional advertising coming from the pot industry.

“Remember the industry is a multi million, perhaps “b” billion dollar industry,” says Klug. “If you look at our newspapers there six ads for pot shops and they are promoting this green leaf environmentally organic friendly image. Kids are going ‘how bad can it be it’s organic.’”

Aspen High School principal Tharyn Mulberry says well-being and fitness are such a strong part of the community that most students make healthy choices, but the issue gets complicated. Especially when the drug is marketed like it’s just like any other wellness product.

Not only is there plenty of advertising encouraging marijuana use, in Colorado there is the additional message that adults basically said “pot is OK” when they voted for legalization. But Birnkrant says legalization has led to plants being bred specifically for potency, and the THC levels kids experience today are not their parent’s pot.

“A lot of the adults today have experimented when they were younger and now they have kids and they feel like marijuana in general is more accepted. However, there is a big difference. They are making strains now that are 18-30 percent THC where our parents were using 3 to 7 percent.”

There is also a difference between medical-grade marijuana and recreational pot. While pot can be prescribed to alleviate anxiety and depression in adults, Dr. Levine’s research shows that high levels of THC in teen brains can cause those exact symptoms.

Anecdotally, students at Aspen High have seen happen. Once the developing neural cells are killed by THC, they do not grow back. A student who attended the panel discussion says she had previously been unaware about the parts of the brain that pot can permanently affect, but that information doesn’t necessarily translate into a change of behavior.

“It’s not gonna change… we don’t even listen”

Principal Mulberry stresses that they are not trying to tell adults what to do — or even necessarily influence their students’ behavior — but it is important to make sure teenagers who choose to use have a well rounded supply of information.

“I do think it will give them a pause to consider some other alternative when they are put in that situation. We want to make sure that kids delay those choices — whether it’s alcohol, marijuana or any other sort of substance until they are an adult.

A link to the full presentation “Marijuana and the Adolescent brain” is available here.

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