What’s the Big Deal?

Susan Braunheim

It is undisputed that marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug by American teenagers. It is relatively easy for teens to get, it is reasonably priced and the consumer doesn’t need to show I.D. to purchase it.

Most of today’s parents don’t think that smoking a joint will lead their children to believe they can fly and jump off buildings as in the “Refer Madness” days gone by. However, most do assume that smoking pot does carry with it some risks. But what exactly are these risks and how can a thinking parent assess them? Are all the kids doing it? Does weed increase the likelihood of students dropping out of high school? Is it the “gateway drug” that many zealots want the public to believe it is? Essentially, what does the future hold for pot-puffing adolescents?

Tony Gibson is an 18-year old senior at Crescenta Valley High School and is an avid pot smoker. He is a very nice looking young man with short, well-kept blond hair, a nice smile and a firm hand shake. He is not dressed all in black, his pants at a reasonable place on his waist, not sagging half-way to his knees and he has no obvious tattoos or body piercings. Tony can certainly be described as “clean cut.” It is noticeable in the way he carries himself that he is bright and self-confident.

“I smoke pot at least once every weekend, sometimes more, and I love it. I think it is a way for me to relax the same way a businessman would drink a gin and tonic when he gets home from work. I don’t think it influences me any more than that drink does Mr. Business.” Tony said. “I really don’t think it is a big deal.”

Tony started smoking pot when he was 16-years old. He first tried it at a track and field team party. “The first time I smoked it I really didn’t feel anything. But the next time, oh my God. I got so fried. At that point I knew pot and I would have a long, kick-ass relationship,” Tony said.

He also admits that he limits his marijuana intake to weekends and holidays only. “There is no possible way I could go to school or work all jacked-up. I just couldn’t do it,” Tony said.

Tony’s parents have no idea he smokes pot. “I think I am pretty responsible. I never drive when I’m high. I get good grades and I have a job. What more could my parents ask for?” Tony said. “I am going to Cal State Long Beach next year. They couldn’t be happier.”

Tony is one of 83 million Americans, age 12 and older, that have tried marijuana at least once, according to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

However, pot usage is not as rampant among teens as many believe. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Addiction most teenagers do not use marijuana. Among students surveyed in a yearly national survey, only about one-in-six tenth graders and fewer than one-in-four twelfth graders report they used marijuana within the past month.

Dr. Doug Nies is a clinical psychologist with a lot of experience with teen drug use. In the mid 1980s he was the unit psychologist for an inpatient and outpatient drug rehab for teens at Camarillo State Hospital. He currently has a private practice in Glendale focusing on adolescent and family therapy.

“Long-term studies of high school students and their patterns of drug use show that very few young people use other illegal drugs without first trying marijuana. Using marijuana puts teens in contact with people who are users and sellers of other drugs. So there is more of a risk that a marijuana user will be exposed to and urged to try more drugs. However, most marijuana users do not go on to use other illegal drugs.” Nies said. “But you would be hard-pressed to find someone using methamphetamines that hadn’t first smoked pot.”

So not every teenager that smokes pot goes on to become a fiending heroin addict. In fact, the majority do not. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 65 percent of the kids who do use drugs, use only marijuana.

Even Tony indicates that he has no plans to use other drugs. “I have no desire to try anything else, I don’t really even drink alcohol. Pot is it for me,” Tony said.

Contrary to Tony’s blasé attitude about his pot consumption, but with myth and fanaticism aside, pot does carry with it some real negative consequences.

“Use of marijuana disrupts the nerve cells in the part of the brain where memories are formed. This makes it hard for the user to recall recent events and so it is hard to learn while high. A working short-term memory is required for learning and performing tasks that call for more than one or two steps,” Nies said. “Not being able to do this may cause teens to get discouraged or lose interest in their studies. Dropping out and poor performance in school can be a direct result of smoking pot.”

“The drug can also lead to underachievement in sports or clubs or cause problems with friendships. If they’re high, kids are more likely to make stupid mistakes that could embarrass or even hurt them. If they tend to use marijuana a lot, they can start to lose energy and interest in how they look and how they get along at school or work,” Nies said.

Many teenage pot smokers do have trouble in school. Nate Beecham is a 17-year old senior also at Crescenta Valley High School. He too is well-kept and handsome. He works part-time at the local movie theater and is well-spoken and polite.

“My junior year all I did was get high. I have to say it was a lot of fun. My friends and I would even go out during lunch to smoke a bowl in my truck. I partied everyday.” Nate said. “I ended up failing 3 classes and had to go to summer school. I was so pissed. My grades were pretty good up until then. I had planned on going to Cal State Northridge but not now. I didn’t even bother to take the SATs. Most of my friends and I will be at GCC in the fall.”

Nate would be considered a “chronic user.” He blames his academic down turn on pot and the laziness habitual use generates. “I know that I could have done better in school if I hadn’t partied so much,” Nate said. “I just couldn’t really get a handle on it at the time.”

Nate probably could have done better in school had he not smoked as much as he did. Experts indicate that short-term effects of marijuana include problems with memory and learning, distorted perception, trouble with thinking and problem-solving and loss of coordination.

Brooke Vimtrup is a secondary education counselor at James Monroe High School in
North Hills. She finds that marijuana use is a problem but it is not out of control at her school. She sees students either under the influence of marijuana, smelling of it or possessing it once a week on average. She also feels pot use is a symptom of much larger issues for most kids.

“The kids that use marijuana come from all walks of life. There are a lot of preconceived notions about who uses drugs, but when confronted with the reality of the situation, you see that high achieving kids that attend the magnet schools and straight-A kids use it as much as gangsters and rocker-types. You really can’t read a book by its cover,” Vimtrop said.

“Teens start smoking pot for many reasons. Some kids get involved with pot because they want to fit in or it seems like a good time. Unfortunately, more use pot as a psychological coping mechanism, to deal with anxiety, anger, depression, boredom and so forth,” Vimtrup said.

In Nate’s case, he comes from a blended family and has a hard time getting along with his step-father. He had to change schools twice during high school and that caused him a significant amount of apprehension and nervousness. Recently he was diagnosed with clinical depression and has been prescribed an anti-depressant.

“I started smoking pot regularly when I realized it helped with my anxiety and made me feel better about my life. Nothing else really worked for me,” Nate said. “When my mom found out she put me in therapy right away. I don’t really like going but it has helped. I don’t get high very much anymore and I am going to graduate.”

Some kids, like Nate, have underlying psychological, environmental and emotional issues that may lead them to marijuana in an attempt to ease the pain and problems in their lives, while others are just out for a good time. No child can be judged using only one yardstick; whether or not he or she has ever smoked pot. Chronic use does seem to be a decisive factor in determining why some kids are unable to thrive while other pot smokers continue to succeed.

All things considered, it is clear that chronic marijuana use is not an effective method for coping with life’s problems or teen angst. Staying high can be a way of not dealing with the problems and challenges of growing up. If a child is smoking pot to the extent that it is affecting every other aspect of his or her life, a parent can be sure there are other problems initiating the drug use.

A few bong hits at a party, although not a parent’s dream, is something else entirely.