By Jeni Mendel and Jim Crittenden
Retails sales of marijuana began in California back in January. While the marijuana industry celebrates the increase in access to marijuana, we are ignoring an emerging public health issue.
Marijuana products available today contain much higher amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC than 10 years ago. Between 1995 and 2014, the potency of federally-seized marijuana has more than doubled from approximately 4 percent to 12 percent, not including concentrates and edibles.
While the industry downplays the risks associated with marijuana, new data and research on even low-potency marijuana products are helping us to understand the impact of pot use on a child’s developing brain.
Research is clear that THC in low dosage is known to cause problems with cognitive abilities such as learning, attention, decision-making and academic performance. Pot use affects specific regions of the brain involved with both short- and long-term memory, problem-solving, and the ability to stop a behavior.
In a recent study in Canada, researchers were able to associate continued pot use with addictions later in adulthood. The scientists said the most problematic finding was that marijuana use has a serious effect on the developing brain’s impulse control, and noted that students who had started using marijuana were more likely to struggle with changing their actions to help meet a goal.
Researchers grapple with how to study potent pot products due to standards and regulations regarding human subjects. But doesn’t it stand to reason that if a low-potency product is causing harm to the developing brain, then a high-potency product would compound the issue?
Educators and prevention and treatment professionals are seeing an alarming trend. According to the California Healthy Kids Survey, administered in over 80 percent of San Diego County school districts, perceptions of the harm that marijuana can cause is decreasing.
Longstanding research shows that when the perception of harm declines and access increases, we see an increase in use. Legalization and normalization efforts are directly related to increasing access and reducing the perception of harm.
In San Diego County, marijuana is the primary drug of choice for youth aged 12-17 in county-funded drug-treatment programs. Many of the youth in treatment programs report using high-potency products that can be vaped or eaten.
The explosion of vaping products and edibles is also of concern for educators and parents. Vaping devices produce higher levels of THC when metabolized, and are easy to conceal and hard to detect. Those factors not only make it easy to use, they remove the stigma of “smoking.”
Young people who report they would never smoke marijuana are experimenting with edible and vaping products, further increasing access and use among this population. A new survey commissioned by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and released Monday confirmed a big spike in the number of high school students who are vaping: 37 percent of seniors have tried it this year, compared to just under 28 percent in 2017.
Science needs to catch up and begin studying the high-potency products marketed and advertised to youth because public health is at stake. Young people need to be aware of the potential damage they are causing to their developing brains. Academic achievement and career goals depend on a healthy brain.
We must remember that marijuana is not the same product it was in the 80s, 90s or even 10 years ago. Public health officials, educators and legislators must work together to develop proper messaging so parents and youth better understand the connection between high-potency pot use and cognitive impairment.
Jeni Mendel is a member of the San Diego County Behavioral Health Advisory Board and Jim Crittenden is a program specialist with the San Diego County Office of Education. Both are members of the San Diego County Marijuana Prevention Initiative leadership team.
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