Adult Addicts Fear For Teens Now That Pot is Legal

By Amy Radil

One of the most urgent questions surrounding Washington’s legalization of marijuana is the effect it will have on teenagers. Researchers say teens often see marijuana as “natural” and “safer than alcohol.” Many adults who consider themselves “addicts” supported legalization. But they say marijuana is NOT harmless.

“Michael” is in his fifties now. He smoked pot steadily for 33 years, starting when he was growing up in Ohio at age 15. His parents never found out he was smoking, or taking risks to get marijuana.

Michael: “A couple of times I would tell my parents I’m borrowing their car to go to my friend’s house and I would drive four states over to visit a friend who said they had some pot and I would go and smoke a bowl with them and they would give me a bud to take home and I’d drive back that night. I did that several times.”

Michael asked that only his first name be used, to protect his identity and his livelihood. He says as time went on, he organized his life to accommodate his love of pot. And he thought of it as his choice.

Michael: “I would cough so much that I couldn’t stop and I’d fall to my knees and fall on all four hands and cough up this black gunk and almost pass out. And then when I finally able to start breathing again, I would stand up and start breathing again, and my reaction would be, ‘that was some damn good pot.’ And then I’d do it again.”

Then four years ago Michael says his routine came to a screeching halt. He was laid off from work, in debt, and isolated.

Michael: “For me, I just reached a point where I wasn’t anywhere that I wanted to be at my age. And I finally realized I didn’t have all the answers.”

A friend suggested that he check out the group Marijuana Anonymous. He went to a meeting, and felt a shock of recognition at the stories he heard. Michael says he considers himself an addict. He supported legalization through Initiative 502 as a better choice than sending people to jail. But he doesn’t use it anymore, and he doesn’t like to see celebrities touting marijuana as “harmless.”

Michael: “Saying those kinds of things encourages people. In my case when I was young if I heard somebody say something like that I’d always throw it back at my parents as proof that they’re wrong.”

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. For people under 21, it’s still illegal under state law. But those celebrity endorsements and changes in law may affect how teenagers view marijuana, according to UW professor Denise Walker.

Walker: “I think the most current data again suggest that kids do believe that marijuana is less risky and I think research pretty reliably shows that when risk perception goes down, that use goes up.”

There still is not consensus on whether marijuana is addictive. However, many scientists agree there’s a chance that long-term use of marijuana can lead to addiction.

Walker says users can build up a tolerance, and experience withdrawal symptoms. Research suggests that about 9% of marijuana users become addicted; that’s a smaller percentage than for users of alcohol and other drugs. But younger and more frequent users face the highest risks.

Walker personally opposed I-502 as too big of a step, although her colleagues’ opinions were “very mixed” about it.

Walker: “At the same time I do believe that 502 is a pretty thoughtful measure or at least tried to be and creates some protections around doing this from a public health policy rather than just a ‘pie in the sky, nothing’s wrong with marijuana’ approach.”

The “public health” component will come from the tax revenue charged by state-licensed stores. The revenue will be earmarked for prevention and treatment. Walker runs a program in six Seattle high schools that allows teenagers to talk to counselors about their marijuana use. But Walker says if you want to help teens, you can’t call it “treatment.”

Lucy Davis agrees. She’s is a senior at Roosevelt High School who also volunteers as a counselor to other teens. She says most people she knows find the idea of marijuana addiction laughable.

Davis: “I think a lot of teens think that’s like, that’s so stupid, ‘you can’t be addicted to marijuana.’ And the idea of Marijuana Anonymous is like the older generation trying to make it more serious of a drug than it is.”

Even so, there are chapters of Marijuana Anonymous specifically for teens in Seattle. But Davis says she’s excited to watch the experiment of legalized marijuana play out.

And Michael agrees. He admits he was a little wistful watching people gather at the Space Needle to celebrate the new law.

Michael: “I was a little nostalgic about it actually, I was like, wow at one time I would have been there with them and it probably would have been very fun. “

Michael says during all those years that he was smoking pot, life seemed drained of color without it. After he quit, he went to see the B-52s at the Woodland Park Zoo, but he was worried he wouldn’t enjoy it.

Michael: “I went to the first concert in my life sober and had a great time. As I started building up these experiences of finding I could enjoy things I didn’t think I’d be able to, and be able to remember them….that kept me going, that was the payoff for me.”

Michael says members of his recovery group have wondered whether I-502 could lead to more marijuana users, and more people ultimately seeking help. If so, Michael says he’ll try to be there for them.

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