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'It's Just Pot': Does Legalization of Medical Marijuana Change Teens' Attitudes about It?

Newspaper article

'It's Just Pot': Does Legalization of Medical Marijuana Change Teens' Attitudes about It?

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Does the legalization of medical marijuana give young Minnesotans the impression that the drug is harmless -- or at least as safe or even safer than other substances like alcohol or cigarettes?

Though recent studies have shown that legalization for medical purposes has not led to an increase in adolescent use of marijuana in the United States, does decriminalization of the drug change young people's attitudes about its safety?

Carol Falkowski, CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues, a Minnesota-based organization that offers education and training on drug abuse issues, said that if a drug is declared legal for medical use by lawmakers, it may inadvertently send the message that its recreational use is also safe for young people.

Teens may be particularly vulnerable to these messages, Falkowski said: Research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse [PDF] found that when a teen's sense of a substance's perceived harm goes down, his/her rate of use of that substance goes up.

In 1993, for instance, 35.6 percent of 12th graders polled believed there was a "great risk" in smoking marijuana occasionally. That same year, 26 percent of teens polled reported using marijuana. In 2014, those numbers had changed dramatically: 19.5 percent of 12th graders polled saw great risk in occasionally smoking marijuana, while 36.4 percent had used the drug.

"I think it's pretty easy to assume that the fact that 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana and four states and many cities have legalized recreational marijuana contributes to the increased perception among teens that marijuana use is not harmful to them," Falkowski, said. "More teenagers now smoke marijuana than cigarettes. It's great that fewer kids smoke cigarettes, but we should all be concerned that more kids are smoking marijuana. The earlier the onset of use, the more likely the development of addiction."

This week, I spoke with Falkowski and three other prominent addiction and recovery experts. I asked them if they thought that legalization changes teens' attitudes about marijuana. Here's what they said:

Michael Durchslag, director, P.E.A.S.E. academy:

As director of P.E.A.S.E. Academy, Minneapolis' quarter-century- old recovery high school, Durchslag works with young people who have plenty of experience with drugs and alcohol and are actively seeking sobriety.

He said that "99 percent" of his students have smoked marijuana in the past, and so they may not be a good barometer of the shifting attitudes in the general teen population. "The adolescents I come across on a daily basis," Durchsla said, "are definitely a subset of the culture."

That said, he believes that P.E.A.S.E. students do reflect overarching societal perceptions about drug use.

"The attitude that I get from kids here," Durchslag said, "and this has been for a long time, is, 'It's just pot. It's not bad. It's actually natural. It's not even a drug. It's just pot.' I think that's the prevailing attitude among teens everywhere -- and even the teens' parents."

Durchslag said that attitudes like that concern him. "Pot is stronger than it's ever been," he said. "It keeps getting stronger. The pot from the '90s is not the pot from 2015. The pot from 2000 is not the pot from 2015. It just keeps getting stronger."

Marijuana can be addictive, Durchslag said, and he's concerned about the long-term effects that heavy use of the drug can have on the developing adolescent mind.

"I work with a population that has learned that whether it's legal or not, they can't use marijuana successfully," Durchslag said. "For 46 percent of my students, the primary drug that they've sought treatment for is marijuana. People forget that marijuana can be addictive. It actually changes the physical chemistry within your brain."

Durchslag believes that it is "just a matter of time before marijuana is decriminalized nationwide. I think this ball is already rolling. …

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