Marijuana And Substance Use And Abuse

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Part 2 of a two-part series examining this serious issue

Part 1 discussed increased drug and electronic cigarette usage in teens. Find out about additional concerns in Part 2.

Marijuana on Teenage Brain Development

Teens who have used recreational marijuana just once or twice display increased volume of numerous brain regions.

According to experts, as few as one or two hits of marijuana are enough to permanently change the structure of a teenager’s brain. The structural changes can affect the child’s propensity toward anxiety, depression, suicide or addiction.

Researchers from the University of Vermont scanned the brains of teenagers from England, Ireland, France and Germany to study marijuana’s effects. They found that 14-year-old girls and boys exposed to THC—the psychoactive chemical in marijuana—had a greater volume of gray matter in their brains, which means the tissue in certain areas is thicker. The thicker tissue was found to be in the same areas as the receptors affected by marijuana use.

According to experts, thickening of brain tissue is the opposite of what usually happens during puberty, when teenagers’ brain matter usually gets thinner and more refined.

Findings published in The Journal of Neuroscience show that marijuana is far from harmless, especially for teens. Scans of teenagers’ brains show that those who had been exposed to small amounts of marijuana had thicker regions of the brain in the amygdala and hippocampus, whereas those who had never smoked marijuana had thinner brain tissue.

The sections of the brain affected by marijuana are involved with emotions, fear, memory development and spatial skills. As teen brains are still developing, they may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of THC or tetrahydro­cannabinol, the chemical in marijuana that makes people high.

Children’s brains do not stop developing until age 25. The more substances they consume at a younger age, the worse off they will be. For children who start drinking and smoking before age 15, the deck is stacked against them when it comes to mental health challenges and addiction.

What About Alcohol?

Many studies have shown that alcohol damages the brain much more than marijuana does.

“While marijuana may also have some negative consequences, it definitely is nowhere near the negative consequences of alcohol,” noted study author Professor Kent Hutchison of the University of Colorado Boulder.

However, the risks of marijuana are still not fully known. Almost 35 percent of American 10th graders have reported using marijuana, and existing research suggests that initiation of cannabis use in adolescence is associated with long-term neurocognitive effects. Not many studies about the effects of marijuana on teenagers’ brain development exist. Most studies have focused on long-term use by older adults. The bottom line for parents is that both alcohol and marijuana are very dangerous for teenagers. Moreover, it is against the law for parents to host parties where these substances are served to underage guests.

Driving While Impaired

Second only to California, the state of Michigan has the highest number of medical marijuana patients. Recreational marijuana was made legal this past November.

Parents are pressuring the FDA to ban and regulate vapes and Juuls.

According to a recent study by the University of Michigan, more than half of medical marijuana patients in the state drove within two hours of using and while still under the influence. One in five patients reported having driven while “very high” within the past six months.

The fact that people are driving and may be impaired from using marijuana is concerning from a public health and safety perspective. The implications for all of us, as a community, are mind boggling. Can you imagine driving down Middle Neck Road in the Old Village when even more drivers are under the influence?

It is not yet conclusively known whether smoking or consuming legal marijuana is causing more road accidents or how long a smoker should wait before getting behind the wheel. Studies are being conducted all over the country, and we will find out about the data soon enough. It is already against the law to drive while impaired, whether by a glass of wine, prescription pain pills or an antihistamine. All of these substances can affect psychomotor performance.

A February 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that states with medical marijuana laws had lower traffic fatality rates than states without them.

“Medical marijuana laws were associated with immediate reductions in traffic fatalities in those age 15 to 24 and 25 to 44 years, and with additional yearly gradual reductions in those age 25 to 44 years,” according to the study. This could be “related to lower levels of alcohol-impaired driving behavior” in states that have passed medical marijuana laws. Again, the data is not yet clear, but it is forthcoming.

New Legislation in New York to Protect Minors

New York State would be the 11th state to legalize marijuana. Governor Andrew Cuomo is also concerned about the use of marijuana and Juuls/vaping by minors, as are our local elected officials in Nassau County and the Town of North Hempstead.

In response to demand by parents and elected officials all over the state and to “pump the brakes” on the dangerous increase in addiction to nicotine, Cuomo has proposed raising the minimum age for purchases of all tobacco products from 18 to 21.

It is believed that this new law will help prevent teenagers from buying tobacco and vape products. Cuomo is also proposing that drugstores stop selling Juuls and vape pens.

“It sends the incorrect message that tobacco products are safe,” he said.

New restrictions regarding the advertising of vaping and Juuls, as well as restrictions about the location of marijuana dispensaries, exist. Proposed laws will ban flavored e-cigs and require age verification technology by merchants. Parents are pressuring the FDA to ban and regulate vapes and Juuls.

Our children’s futures are at risk. Education and awareness begin at home, and parents must do their part to stop this trend, because it will be our problem to deal with if it escalates.

Task Force on Legal Marijuana

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran recently formed a Task Force on Legal Marijuana led by Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder and Nassau County Legislator Joshua Lafazan from Woodbury.

“As county executive, my first priority is ensuring the safety and health of our residents,” said Curran. “This will be a challenge, but it will also be an opportunity…for Nassau County to lead the way in New York State to promote new business opportunities and utilize new tax revenue for our residents. No matter how you feel about this issue, and what it means, we can all agree that we need to be prepared because it is coming.”

The Task Force brings together experts in the fields of health, business, law enforcement, faith and more, and I was honored to be recently nominated to be part of it. Some of the other members include Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, President of the Nassau Council Chambers of Commerce Francesca Carlow, Freeport High School Assistant Principal Gisselle Campbell-Ham, Farmingdale Village Mayor Ralph Ekstrand, First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury Bishop Lionel Harvey and Family and Children’s Association President Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds.

The Task Force will look at potential legislation to address concerns related to legal marijuana, the effect on minors and students, identify training needs for police officers, potential health protocols and ways to use tax revenue generated from sales. Then, the Task Force will make recommendations to Curran and other legislators.

“Whatever our smaller municipalities, however they feel about it, the bottom line is this is coming,” Curran said. “You can call it a freight train, you can call it whatever you want. It’s coming and we have to be proactive and be ready for it.”

Lafazan also emphasized the need to be proactive and prepared.

“No generation will be more impacted by the policy decisions by government surrounding drugs than my generation,” he noted.

Of major concern is driving while under the influence and what the appropriate penalties should be.

“In 35 years of law enforcement, I never thought this day would come,” Ryder said. “And when it does, we have to be prepared.”

He added that police officers would need to be trained on how to spot drivers who are high behind the wheel.

Lafazan is concerned about people driving under the influence of marijuana, as well.

“My generation understands that you do not drive drunk,” he said. “What my generation egregiously misses is that you do not drive high.”

Parents and legislators are also very concerned about the location and number of marijuana dispensaries in their neighborhoods and the proximity to schools, houses of worship and colleges.

More than 200 mental health professionals are expected at Wisselman Harounian & Associates’ 17th annual legal workshop for mental health professionals on Friday, June 7, at the Port Washington Yacht Club. Learn more at sharyn@lawjaw.com or 516-773-8300.

Read Part 1 here.

Great Neck resident Jacqueline Harounian, Esq., is  a frequent Great Neck Record contributor, a partner at the Great Neck family law firm Wisselman, Harounian & Associates and a member of the Nassau County Task Force for Legal Marijuana.

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