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Experts share how easier access to marijuana in Pennsylvania can impact children

Graphic by Eric Hemphill
Doctor says teens can experience health consequences

This article is shared in its entirety as part of a conversation on addiction and pathways to recovery in our community. To read more from Changing Pathways to Recovery, a six-week series, please subscribe.

Less than 200 miles away from Butler County in Hagerstown, Md., there is a marijuana dispensary just 14 miles south of the Pennsylvania state line.

An hour drive west from Butler County is the Ohio border, the most recent state to have legalized recreational marijuana.

Also, a number of ailments, such as anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, allow for access to one of the six medical marijuana dispensaries located in Butler County.

While recreational marijuana may not be legal in the state of Pennsylvania, Rebecca Trout, the clinical director of Recovery Centers of America in Monroeville, said that is not stopping children from accessing the Schedule I narcotic.

“Pennsylvania is kind of sitting in this unique pocket,” Trout said “We’re surrounded by states that have legalized (marijuana) recreationally. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to take a road trip in a day and go into another state.”

The age for legal purchase is 21 in Ohio and Maryland, but that doesn’t necessarily stop children from getting their hands on cannabis products. If adults have easier access to marijuana, then so do children, she said.

“When we have an increase of adults who now have medical marijuana cards, you’re going to see an increase in teens and adolescents who have access to it,” she said.

As the opportunity to obtain marijuana, whether medically or recreationally, continues to grow, medical professionals like Allegheny Health Network’s Dr. Gary Swanson said that the mind-altering substance could have drastic effects in the development of a child’s mental and physical health.

Swanson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, said there are a number of concerns when it comes to children who routinely use marijuana.

“What we do know is that the regular and daily use of marijuana (in children) can lead to adverse medical problems, mental health problems and changes in brain development,” Swanson said. “The younger you start, the worse it is.”

Trout said most brains don’t fully develop until around the age of 25, and marijuana use can have a negative impact on cognitive functions, such as problem solving skills, memory and maintaining attention.

This may manifest via lower grades in school or higher dropout rates, Trout said.

Dr. Scott Cook, medical director of Recovery Centers of America in Monroeville, said there are also possible physical drawbacks when it comes to children using marijuana, depending on how the drug is ingested.

“Let’s say there’s an adolescent smoking marijuana,” Cook said. “There are about 500 chemicals in marijuana that can have harmful effects. Just like cigarettes, there could be a negative impact on the lungs.”

Along with inhibited cognitive functions, marijuana use before the age of 25 can also lead to not only increase rate of mental health issues, but an “increased intensity of symptoms,” she said.

“We see a higher rate of depression and anxiety, we see a higher rate of social anxiety and we also see a higher likelihood of developing what we call a temporary psychosis,” Trout said. “That’s when someone kind of breaks away from reality for a period of time.”

Early use of marijuana has also been associated with a significantly increased risk of schizophrenia.

“There is an increased risk for an earlier onset of schizophrenia,” Trout said. “Especially for those who have a family history of schizophrenia. There is a greater risk the younger the individual is and the frequency they use.”

Not your grandma’s marijuana

Along with becoming more legally available, marijuana has also seen a drastic increase in potency and delivery method.

“Today’s marijuana is not your mom’s marijuana or your grandma’s marijuana,” Swanson said. “The (active ingredient) in marijuana has gone way up, these strains are more potent.”

The Yale School of medicine found that the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, had risen nearly 20% from 1995 to 2017. Other products such as oils and edibles saw a THC increase as high as 90%.

Swanson said the drastic increase of potency is something parents should be aware of.

“I think some parents might think that ‘I used that, and it wasn’t a big deal,’” he said. “Well, what they were using was much less potent, and it matters.

“It very much matters when you first use, how often you use and how much you use.”

The way in which to consume marijuana has also drastically changed. From vape pens, to marijuana infused drinks, candy and even facial creams there are a variety of ways that people can consume cannabis.

Which according to Dr. Trout, can make it easier for kids to conceal from their parents.

“There used to be a time when if you were smoking weed in your bedroom, your parents were going to know,” Trout said. “So now you can easily hide something that looks like candy in your pocket and nobody is going to know.”

Dr. Scott Cook, medical director of Recovery Centers of America in Monroeville, said that marijuana in the form of candy can be deceiving to a child.

“When you have substances that look like they taste like candy, it has a negative impact because kids don’t see it as harmful,” Cook said “There are also reports that some of these candy have been laced with more something more deadly. You don’t always know what you’re getting.”

Last year, police in Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana and New York reported cases of marijuana edibles laced with fentanyl.

Currently, Pennsylvania medical cannabis patients currently have access to tinctures, pills, oils, topicals and dry leaf to vaporize, but there have been several attempts to allow for edible marijuana for medical users.

Open lines of communication

As the access to marijuana increases, it’s important for parents to be aware of all the potential ramifications.

Along with knowing the warning signs of a child who is habitually using marijuana, Dr. Trout said one of the most important thing that a parent can do to safeguard their children from potential long-term consequences, is have an open line of communication.

“The number one thing I tell parents is that they are going to be the experts on their child,” Trout said. “Nobody is going to know their child they way (a parent) knows their own child.”

“If something comes up that is out of the ordinarily or something seems different, listen to that. Listen to that gut feeling and have conversations. I tell parents all the time have open conversations because the more open we are with these conversations the more likely are children are going to come to us.”

This article is shared in its entirety as part of a conversation on addiction and pathways to recovery in our community. To read more from Changing Pathways to Recovery, a six-week series, please subscribe.

Related Article: Schools use curriculum, D.A.R.E., clubs to discourage drug use Related Article: Vaping cannabis a concern for youth Related Article: Butler County school districts use $512K in Juul settlement funding on detection, prevention Related Article: Butler County school administrators share concerns on illicit substance use by teens

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