So I’ve been thinking a lot about the (upcoming) legalization of marijuana and what it means for our kids.
Many of you readers know that we [the Levensons] lost our son Eric, z”l, to suicide in February of 2016, at the age of 28, after a long battle with mental illness. While Eric did not use drugs to take his life, I know that marijuana and Eric were intimate partners.
Eric suffered from irritable bowel syndrome. Diagnosed at an early age (10), it got much worse as the years progressed, and as his mental health challenges continued. Somewhere during those early years, Eric discovered that marijuana actually helped his IBS—increasing his appetite (think “the munchies”), and diminishing the pain, at least for a short time. His physician actually encouraged him to use marijuana (sparingly) to help him deal with the pain, since the medications were not working.
However, somewhere along the way, “sparingly” gave way to “often.” It’s hard to watch your child suffer, and ask him not to use something that makes him feel better, even if it’s illegal. And so I turned a blind eye. Not that we had much control over what he did once he was in college and out of the house.
So we got to see firsthand the effects of marijuana usage, and here’s my take on all the talk about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana.
Myth #1: Marijuana is not a “gateway drug.”
Well, not in the pure sense of the word. Using marijuana does not necessarily mean that you will at some point switch to other drugs. But sometimes, you don’t need to go to any other drug. With marijuana, you still get high, you still have impaired judgement while under the influence, and you still damage brain cells.
Myth #2: Marijuana is not addictive.
Again, maybe not from a physical, biological standpoint. But the feelings of euphoria, of freedom, of disconnectedness from the world, is addictive. If something makes you feel good, or feel better (as in Eric’s case), you’re going to repeat doing it. So if not the drug itself being addictive, the action of smoking and getting high is addictive.
Myth #3: Marijuana does not hurt you.
Sure! And neither does alcohol! Anything used too much, that changes your mental status, hurts you!
Myth #4: Legalizing marijuana won’t increase the usage.
Right! Because legalizing alcohol didn’t lead to increased alcoholism in our modern society!
So are you beginning to get the picture? I do not believe that legalizing marijuana is a good thing. And what is the message we are sending our kids when we tell them that this drug is now legal? We are telling them that marijuana is like alcohol. If used in moderation it is safe. And if misused it is not. As if they hear that second part. Do they about alcohol?
The Child Mind Institute has some important articles on teenage use of marijuana. I’d like to share some of the salient points with you here.
In an article entitled, “Marijuana and Psychosis” (yes that’s actually the name of the article), the author Juliann Garey cites a report commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, released in mid-January 2018, that warns against the dangers of pot use, especially in adolescence. “The report cites evidence that heavy pot use, prolonged length of exposure and age at the beginning of exposure may all be risk factors in triggering a first episode of psychosis. Where mental illness—especially schizophrenia—already exists, the report concludes, heavy and prolonged pot use may make symptoms worse.
Other studies have also found that young people with a predisposition to developing a psychotic illness may be drawn to pot at an earlier age—possibly as a form of self-medication—than other adolescents.”
How Much Is Too Much?
When it comes to pot and psychosis, moderation does matter. But it’s impossible to tell how big a risk you might be taking if you begin to light up on a regular basis.
The best recommendation provided in the aforementioned article for would-be or current pot users is that if they have an unusual hallucinations or other psychotic-like experiences while intoxicated, it’s an indicator that they may have a predisposition to some kind of psychotic illness. For them it would be better to be cautious and to avoid substances.
What Can Parents Do?
According to the author, “The best thing parents can do is arm their kids with the facts—not scare tactics or threats, but the facts: that occasional or infrequent use of pot is much safer than regular use and that daily use could be setting them up for real trouble. And that we just don’t know enough about the risks to the developing adolescent brain and the long-term effects of marijuana” (Juliann Garey, CMI, 2018).
“It’s a very hard conversation to have, especially for young folks in a developmental stage where they think that they’re invincible. Drugs and alcohol are prevalent in adolescence, young adulthood, and also in some ways, it is sort of a rite of passage. It’s something that many people do, and many people don’t have any issues as a result” (Ibid).
The point the author makes is that this is an ongoing conversation that parents should start early since the report also notes the evidence suggests that initiating marijuana use at a younger age, “increases the likelihood of developing dependency, which can affect academic performance and social interactions.”
In another article from Child Mind Institute, also from 2018, Rae Jacobson addresses the issue of how to have that conversation. It’s a short but informative article and one parents should read. The point is, no one knows anything for sure, and we will continue to hear different opinions from different sources. What is sure is that most young people, adolescents, teenagers and young adults already have impaired judgment, and marijuana will only make it worse.
Since the passing of her son Eric by suicide in 2016, Eta Levenson and her family founded the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope to fight the stigmatization of mental illness, raise awareness about mental health challenges and help prevent suicide. She can be reached at [email protected]
By Eta Krasna Levenson and Lisa Lisser
Lisa Lisser is a freelance Jewish educator focused on adult Jewish learners. She is also a board member of The T’Shuvah Center, a residential addiction recovery facility that will be opening in New York City in the fall. The T’Shuvah Center offers a Jewish response to addiction. Lisa can be reached at [email protected]