Don’t disregard the risks teen pot users face

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss isn’t so worried about legal sales of recreational marijuana to adults. As presiding judge for the county’s Juvenile Offender Drug Treatment Court, he is more concerned by what he sees as “normalization” of a drug he knows is ruining many kids’ lives.

Dr. Leslie Walker isn’t worried that teens will now get marijuana from legal pot shops, where sales are only allowed to those 21 and older. As chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Childrens Hospital and co-director of the hospital’s Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, she is troubled by what she sees as a “decreased perception of risk.” Walker knows weed is harming many kids’ brains.

Legal buyers and sellers are celebrating as retail sales of recreational pot began this week in Washington. For those on the front lines helping teens who struggle with marijuana use, there is no euphoria.

“Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. A lot of things are legal — alcohol, cigarettes, prescription drugs,” said Walker, also a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

One of her concerns jibes with the judge’s worry that pot use has become normal. Walker cited a survey, from several years ago, of teens who did not use pot. About a third of them said they would try weed if it were legal. “I’m concerned about that group of kids. They’ll see it as a safer drug,” Walker said.

About 30 young people are now in Juvenile Offender Drug Treatment Court, and hundreds have graduated from the court since its start about a decade ago, Weiss said. The county has separate drug courts for at-risk youth and for adult offenders. Drug courts offer a therapeutic approach to people with substance-abuse problems.

At a recent conference of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Weiss was especially bothered by ads shown there touting marijuana edibles. “A speaker equated it to nicotine,” he said, recalling when tobacco advertisers used images that appealed to young people.

Weiss is seeing kids using pot at younger and younger ages. “I see kids who say they were 8 the first time they tried it,” the judge said. “A lot of them tell you they can stop whenever they want. But when they try to do that, they can’t stop.”

The doctor knows well how hard it is for some to stop using pot. “It’s an addictive substance. There is no question in the scientific literature,” she said. “In some ways, it’s much more sneaky than alcohol.”

If someone gets drunk every day, that’s clearly a real problem. “With marijuana, the reactions are not so extreme. They seem more relaxed. That word ‘mellow’ isn’t so derogatory,” Walker said.

Research shows serious risks to teen pot users, she said. Those risks include permanent decrease in IQ with prolonged use, anxiety, depression, memory problems, even psychotic episodes.

The biggest risk is the “arrest of development into mature adults,” Walker said. “Aspirations go out the window until they get away from drugs.

“You know who the pothead is,” she added. “The reason you know is that they’re exhibiting signs of brain damage.”

Weiss is involved with Reclaiming Futures, which brings juvenile court, substance-abuse treatment and mentors together to help break the cycle of drugs and crime.

Everett artist Henri Wilson is part of that program. She has taught art at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, and works with teens in drug court through a program called Promising Artists in Recovery. She sees kids who struggle daily with the lure of drugs, who have had goals in school and life scuttled by weed — a drug often described as a harmless plant.

Wilson, too, is worried by the no-big-deal notion that legalization gives kids. “We give them the message that it’s a less serious issue than it is,” she said. “It does affect the development of teenage brains. It damages them.”

She hopes some of the money the state nets through pot sales will fund recovery programs for teens. And for all those happy pot smokers, Wilson has a reminder.

“Don’t forget about your kids while you’re celebrating,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Help for parents

The state Department of Health offers help for parents with questions about how to talk with kids about recreational marijuana: www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/Marijuana/RecreationalMarijuana.aspx

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