Wed, Jul 21, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Going to pot

Marijuana is no longer the gentle weed of the 1960s and may pose a greater threat than cocaine or even heroin, some say

REUTERS , Washington

A young man openly smokes hashish during a parade in Berlin to demand that cannabis be legalized in the country. But health authorities in Europe and the US are sounding the alarm about youths becoming increasingly addicted to ever-increasingly powerful strains of marijuana.

PHOTO: DPA

Alarmed by reports that marijuana is becoming more potent than ever and that children are trying it at younger and younger ages, US officials are changing their drug policies.

Pot is no longer the gentle weed of the 1960s and may pose a greater threat than cocaine or even heroin because so many more people use it. So officials at the National Institutes of Health and at the White House are hoping to shift some of the focus in research and enforcement from "hard" drugs such as cocaine and heroin to marijuana.

While drug use overall is falling among children and teenagers, the officials worry that the children who are trying pot are doing so at ever-younger ages, when their brains and bodies are vulnerable to dangerous side effects.

"Most people have been led to believe that marijuana is a soft drug, not a drug that causes serious problems," said John Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"[But] marijuana today is a much more serious problem than the vast majority of Americans understand. If you told people that one in five of 12- to 17-year-olds who ever used marijuana in their lives need treatment, I don't think people would remotely understand it."

The number of children and teenagers in treatment for marijuana dependence and abuse has jumped 142 percent since 1992, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported in April.

According to the report, children and teenagers are three times more likely to be in treatment for marijuana abuse than for alcohol, and six times likelier to be in treatment for marijuana than for all other illegal drugs combined.

And it found the age of youths using marijuana is falling. The teenagers aged 12 to 17 said on average they started trying marijuana at 13-and-a-half. The same survey found that adults aged 18 to 25 had first tried it at 16.

For National Institute on Drug Abuse director Dr Nora Volkow the final straw was a report her institute published in May in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing the steady growth in the potency of cannabis seized in raids.

According to the University of Mississippi's Marijuana Potency Project, average levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, rose steadily from 3.5 percent in 1988 to more than 7 percent last year.

Volkow said many studies have shown the brain has its own so-called endogenous cannabinoids. These molecules are similar in structure to the active ingredients in marijuana and are involved in a range of activities and emotions ranging from eye function to pain regulation and anxiety.

Brain cells have receptors -- molecular doorways -- designed specifically to interact with these cannabinoids.

The cannabinoids in marijuana may use these ready-made doorways into brain cells and this is why they cause a high and reduce pain sensations. But Volkow believes the effects may go beyond the general feeling of well-being that most marijuana users seek.

"I would predict that stronger pot makes the brain less likely to respond to endogenous cannabinoids," Volkow said in an interview. The effects could be especially marked in young brains still growing and learning how to respond to stimuli, she said.

While the research so far is inconclusive, Volkow believes that cannabinoids affect the developing brain and that stronger pot, combined with earlier use, could make children and teenagers anxious, unmotivated or perhaps even psychotic.

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