It’s Not Your Father’s Pot

Today’s marijuana or cannabis is different from what was smoked in the 60s and 70s.  And that difference can be life changing.   Here’s why:

Marijuana today is more potent.

The concentration of THC today is much higher. THC is the chemical compound in marijuana that produces the anticipated euphoria. Therefore the effects on the human brain are different in several ways. Higher levels of THC cause heightened feeling of euphoria—and what goes up comes down. With potent marijuana the trip to high (the sought-after feeling) may keep on going into a pounding heart and the shortness of breath experience of anxiety or panic – even psychosis and paranoia. Then comes the downs—depression and irritability. Users think, “Another joint will level me off, right?”

Marijuana today is delivered in more concentrated forms.

“Back in the day” we rolled a joint or maybe packed a bowl of weed. Marijuana today is not just smoked as a leaf. The leaf is mixed with grain alcohol and reduced over an open flame. The cooking process concentrates the solution which is then squeezed through cheese cloth into first an oil-then further concentrated into wax. The oil is nearly 70% THC and the wax can be 90% or more pure THC.  Contrast this with the 5 to 7% concentration of THC in the pot of the 1970s. Even today’s leaf or “bud” is 15-20% THC.

Marijuana today is administered or consumed in more sophisticated ways.

I’m sure you’ve heard about edibles or pot brownies, which were available back in the day. And yes marijuana is still rolled into joints, spliffs or blunts (dark brown tobacco paper). But, oils and wax- dabs-can be electrically heated in what looks like a fountain pen or vape.  The pens vaporize concentrated THC so there’s little or no odor or smoke. That means parents won’t identify the distinctive smell of burned marijuana.  Or dabs may be smoked off small pieces of aluminum foil. If you’re finding charred, crumpled pieces of foil on the floor, closet, or in your child’s book bag, that may be what you’re seeing.

Tolerance

Users of today’s pot develop a tolerance and will often take a break to regain the high once they return. They will say things like: “Mom, I haven’t smoked in a month! See I can control it…”

Here’s why that’s a problem: Marijuana – however it’s used – stays in our bodies and affects our brains for a long time. Cannabis has a very long half-life (the rate of metabolism). So tolerance develops and more is needed to reach the anticipated high. Then tolerance breaks are needed to even catch a high. With more use, even with tolerance breaks, the highs and lows become increasingly uncomfortable—both physically and emotionally. At this point a pot smoker often switches to other more risky drugs: “downers” like Xanax or painkillers like Percocet. Add alcohol use to mix and you have toxicity. We frequently see this pattern of use and abuse of substances in treatment programs.

In my substance abuse practice we had a 22 year old patient who was vaping daily. “Sam” had been hospitalized several times in a three-year period. He was having hallucinations that happened three times before he came to us. He’d return to baseline with the help of medication. Promising to stay drug-free he returned to finish college. Within six weeks he resumed vaping and required yet another hospitalization for acute psychosis. Sam is now in a long-term residential program. Does Sam have an underlying psychiatric problem that concentrated THC teased out or was it just vaping?

Sam’s case is not unusual to see in treatment programs. What is more typical is an adolescent who was smoking in high school, often with parent’s knowledge, goes off to college, smokes more in that lax environment, doesn’t study, then gets anxious and depressed and either drops out during the semester or can’t return for the following one. He fails classes or looks like he has an unspecified psychiatric disorder. In fact, it’s marijuana use.

Sign of heavy marijuana use

Here are some of the signs of heavy marijuana use that should get parents’ attention:

  • Loss of motivation and impaired attention, which is too often confused with ADHD
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Mood swings with prominent irritability
  • Secretive behaviors
  • Regular bouts of running out of money.

The bottom line is this: Today’s marijuana is not your father’s pot.  It’s more concentrated and more dangerous by far—and it is a gateway drug.  Don’t justify your kids’ use of marijuana by saying “I did it and it’s fine.  It’s just marijuana.”

Worried that your kid has a substance abuse problem? The Next Right Thing will be offering free parent support groups every Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. starting Jan. 31. Anyone may attend to meet with other parents and discuss their concerns and doubts about substance abuse.

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