Last week Dr. Jerome Adams, the United States Surgeon General, issued his first Advisory of 2019 on the risks of marijuana use for adolescents and pregnant women.
“Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth, " said Dr. Adams when issuing this warning.
The Surgeon General sounded the alarm that marijuana use during adolescence is associated with changes in areas of the brain involved in attention, memory, decision-making and motivation. "Not enough people know that today's marijuana is far more potent than in days' past. The amount of THC -- the component responsible for euphoria and intoxication but also most of marijuana's documented harms -- has increased three- to five-fold over the last few decades," he said. “And nearly one in five people who begin marijuana use during adolescence become addicted."
While some marijuana advocates are not happy with this message, I applaud the Surgeon General for taking this stand. This is an important and timely message, given the current addiction epidemic coupled with legalization efforts. The most troubling aspect in all of this is that the impact this will have on youth is often overlooked.
Over the past twenty years there have been tremendous strides with regard to what we now know about addiction and recovery. Research has confirmed that it is a preventable yet progressive and potentially fatal condition. Although using substances at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier a person begins using drugs and alcohol, the greater the chances of his/her use progressing rapidly into chemical dependency.
Data from both the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reveal that most adults with current substance use disorders starting using before the age of 18; half of those began before 15. Individuals who begin drinking before the age of 14 are seven times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at 21. (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide)
As a former prosecutor, I know that involvement with the juvenile justice system can serves as the catalyst to addressing these issues. Very often substance use is associated with and/or drives delinquency and will bring youth to the attention of law enforcement. While possession or use of substances alone will usually result in diversion or other programming referral, the justice system has an opportunity to use these encounters as teachable moments.
We can no longer write off adolescent substance use as “harmless right of passage” – it can and does have significant long-term detrimental effects. And although alcohol and now marijuana use may be legal for adults, they remain illegal for youth, no matter what state you live in. It is perhaps most important to share this message with parents, who often look at their own use and dismiss the warnings.
In many jurisdictions around the country, prosecutors and other juvenile justice stakeholders are leading efforts to raise awareness about the vulnerability of the adolescent brain to substances including alcohol and marijuana. They now have a very strong ally in the Surgeon General and can use his Advisory as a powerful resource to help protect our nation's youth.