When University of Massachusetts Amherst first-year student Andie Hall was a junior at Easthampton High School, she remembers one day when a fellow student began smoking a joint in the locker room before gym class.
Hall and her classmates were shocked — not because the student was smoking marijuana — but because of her brazenness about doing it at school.
“We asked ‘What are you doing? Do you realize that’s going to smell and you’re going to get in trouble?’” Hall recalled.
Throughout middle and high school, Hall said that while students understood that parents and school officials thought that underage marijuana use was wrong, it was acceptable among peers — at least outside of school.
And now that it’s legal in Massachusetts for people ages 21 and older to use marijuana products recreationally, doctors and advocates worry that minors will see marijuana as a risk-free substance — available in watermelon-flavored-lozenge and Belgian-chocolate-bar form.
“It is a real concern for me, that kids and adolescents are seeing it as so much more acceptable,” said Dr. Estevan Garcia, a pediatrician at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.
Until around age 22, “The frontal brain is still developing,” Garcia said. “During normal development, there are natural chemicals in the brain. When you bathe (the brain) in additional chemicals, that becomes a problem.”
In youth, “because the brain is developing and changing in teens, the impact of daily insult of marijuana is significant,” he explained, adding, “The belief is there will be long-term damage to the brain that will result in years and years, potentially irreversible harm.”
While there’s still a lot that’s unknown, Garcia noted that several studies have shown that frequent marijuana use by minors can lead to long-term depression, aggression, decreased focus, decreased IQ and an increased risk of psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an active ingredient in cannabis, mimics anandamide — a chemical that’s produced naturally — and binds to brain receptors, according to Dr. James Morrill of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Morrill gave a talk on the subject of marijuana use among youth recently at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.
“In the nucleus accumbens (a part of the brain), which is the seat of addiction, there are well-documented (destructive) effects on the structure of neurons,” Morrill explained.
“Not only does THC bind to receptors, but it has downstream effects on immediate-function, long-term function and long-term structure in these areas of the brain,” he said.
In his practice, Morrill said he often treats 18 and 20-year-old patients addicted to marijuana.
“It’s heartbreaking to look back in the chart and the last thing we see is their 13 and 14 physical, with sort of seemingly quaint things on the problem list like ‘refractive error’ and ‘asthma’ and wishing those were still the problems they had,” he said.
In light of these medical dangers, legalization sends a complicated message to youth already bombarded by conflicting information, said Ananda Lennox, coordinator of the Northampton Prevention Coalition. There are a few ongoing studies in the area trying to quantify the impact that legalization has had on the risks young people associate with marijuana use.
“It’s really hard growing up as a kid right now to make the distinction clear — ‘If everyone thinks this is OK right now, why can’t I use it?’” Lennox said.