A wide range of forum members with very different backgrounds spoke to about 60 attendees at a presentation on marijuana and the science of adolescent addiction Friday night at Columbia Middle School.
The forum was hosted by several community organizations that came together, including the Monroe County Coalition for Drug-Free Communities, the Monroe County Coroner, Monroe County Sheriff, Columbia Police Department and Waterloo Police Department, to bring the presentation to Columbia.
Dr. Christian Thurstone, a board-certified general, child and adolescent addictions psychiatrist, researcher and author, spoke to attendees first, giving some background and statistics regarding marijuana and its use and effects in today’s society.
He also detailed how recreational marijuana and related products are targeted toward a very young audience using cartoon-like images, bright colors and spinoffs of popular candies in edible products.
“You have to get to people young so they become heavy users, and 80 percent of alcohol and tobacco profits come from the heavy adult users,” Thurstone said. “You really have to get to people young to create that.”
He presented a chart from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that showed age 20 being the peak prevalence for marijuana use.
“When you talk about substance abuse, you really have to talk about youth because they are disproportionally affected by substance abuse,” he said.
There are 2.4 million new users of marijuana every year in the U.S., and 58 percent are under the age of 18.
Thurstone is the medical director of one of the largest youth substance abuse treatment clinics in Colorado, where recreational and medical marijuana were legalized in 2012.
Being in a state where marijuana use is common and even celebrated, Thurstone and his wife, Christine Tatum, continue to fight against the drug and educate people about its use.
In Illinois, where the Department of Public Health is working on implementing the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, Thurstone said voters and citizens should be very concerned.
He said he hears over and over that “it’s just pot,” but the effects are far greater than what people realize.
“When people say no one’s ever overdosed on marijuana, it’s like saying no one’s ever overdosed on tobacco,” he said. “Even though tobacco is the leading cause of death.”
The prevalence of marijuana use in adolescents can be extremely harmful, Thurstone advised.
“People say marijuana isn’t addictive, or if it is, it’s only psychologically addictive and not physically,” he said. “This has been shown very clearly in the medical scientific literature: marijuana produces not just psychological addiction but physical addiction.”
In terms of physical addiction, Thurstone said use over time produces tolerance to it and stopping after heavy use does have withdrawal effects.
“They can feel irritable, restless, have insomnia, nausea, feel hot and cold, have strange dreams, mild tremors… The list goes on,” he said. “One in six adolescents who tries it does develop an addiction to it.”
He said that statistic is old and is from when people used marijuana with a low THC level compared to what’s being used today.
“It’s routine for the marijuana today to be 10 times more potent,” he said. “We need to redo that statistic.”
After his presentation, he sat beside his wife, Tatum; Mike Weiland, director of the Crossroads Program; Stephanie, the mother of a son in recovery; and Joe, a young man recovering from addiction.
The five of them took questions from the crowd. The audience submitted questions like “why do kids take drugs?” and “is there an alternative?”
Joe, a young man in recovery, answered the questions about why youth take drugs.
“Everything Dr. Thurstone said about adolescents being targeted by the media and companies is 110 percent true,” he said. “It’s in the music you listen to, the TV you watch and your peers, too.”
He said he felt like he didn’t fit in, and hanging out with a group of people who hung out and got high gave him a group.
“They’d hang out with me anytime I’d have a $20 bill in my pocket, because at the time, I thought they were my friends,” he said. “Realistically, we all knew we could use each other’s $20 and go get loaded. But they accepted me with no second thoughts.”
Joe said people who use drugs like marijuana but want to stop need an alternative that’s better to getting high.
Weiland, a former addict himself, said there is a massive gap between hearts and minds.
“I knew these things were bad for me, but I didn’t care because it felt good,” he said. “Your intellect and emotion just don’t grow together with marijuana.”
Weiland said the worst part of marijuana is that it doesn’t seem dangerous.
“We hear about the dangers of heroin and cocaine and even alcohol,” he said. “Weed is like the little stepbrother of drugs, and that’s why it’s so dangerous.”
He cited how day-to-day, the effects of marijuana can be hard to see. But over time, the danger and consequences become apparent.
“It’s a poison,” he said. “When you realize it, it’s too late.”
Columbia Middle School was the last stop on Dr. Thurstone’s Missouri Marijuana Prevention Tour, where he traveled all around the state last week.
The Monroe County Coalition for Drug-Free Communities has been and will continue to work against drugs in the county and community.
Their next meeting is 4 p.m. June 2 at the YMCA.