Personal Stories on the Impact of Youth Substance Use

Drug and alcohol use can have significant negative short- and long-term impacts.

A Teen's Story

The New York City Council
Subcommittee on Drug Abuse
Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services
Friday, November 18, 2011

Good morning Council Board.

My name is Max Schwartzberg. I am a 27-year-old mental health counselor and substance abuse therapist. I work in an OASAS-licensed and funded intensive residential rehabilitation program. I am responsible for individual and group psychotherapy and the coordination of psychiatric care. The population I treat ranges from drug court diversions to life parolees. But I stand before you not as a professional. I am testifying as a young man who spent 10 years of his early life smoking marijuana. Eight of those years were spent trying to stop. Originally my intent was to give testimony as a counselor who is in the trenches every day, dealing with the aftermath of marijuana addiction and abuse. However, I realized that because of stigma, young people addicted to marijuana have no formal representation here on the issue of smoking medical marijuana.

I would like to speak on behalf of all those whose voices have been silenced either by embarrassment, or by people who don't believe that smoking marijuana can destroy life...

The biggest danger in smoking marijuana is that most of the destruction does not occur right away. It is a slow, gradual, yet progressive collapse of the person's life. It isn't until a person is truly addicted that they start to experience the cognitive, emotional, and psychological consequences. Smoking marijuana becomes a relationship. It is reasonable to say that it would be easier to end a relationship that was abusive, if the abuse occurred very early on. It is equally reasonable to say that it would be much more difficult to end a relationship if the abuse did not occur until 6 years in.

I was a healthy, bright, caring, and sensitive child. I loved science and looked at the pictures in pathology textbooks. Doing well in school mattered to me. I liked a girl. I was an all star hockey player. I had amazing parents

My first real hit of marijuana at age 12 sparked the slow, death of everything I had just mentioned. It's hard to hold a girlfriend's hand when you're always rolling a blunt. It's hard to be a son when you're stealing money from your mother. And it's even harder to be an older brother when you've been stoned his entire life.

While we are on the subject of difficulty, it is nearly impossible to get help for a problem that is not recognized as a problem. I guess that's why there was not one bit of professional or peer help for my mother who was watching her son slowly lose touch with himself, with her, and with the world. I had been to at least a dozen psychiatrists. There was only one who said that my mental and emotional collapse was due to my pot smoking.

She went on maternity leave. I continued to smoke and soon became a shell of a person, paranoid and emaciated after an eating disorder that just popped up out of nowhere. At least it seemed like it came out of nowhere. But a sound and sober mind would see that smoking pot made me very hungry, when I ate, I ate a lot, which killed my high. I liked being high, so I would throw up and start again. It wasn't until my life had come to this pitiful point that I started to believe that smoking marijuana helped me with my nausea. The funny thing about this is that the only time that smoking marijuana as medicine made any sense, was when I was high after smoking marijuana. What happens when your medicine is harming you more than it helps?

Forty pounds lighter, [using] better and better weed, I ended up in the psychiatric ward for 13 days after I thought I was being chased by Osama Bin Laden. I had had a drug-induced psychotic episode and thought that the Taliban had killed by brother and was persecuting my family.

I continued to suffer, and my mother and family continued to watch me slowly go away. During this time I am still going to doctors, and for some reason they kept telling me that what I really needed to do was make my bed and learn to do my laundry. It's funny how they failed to mention that my quarter-ounce-a-day marijuana habit could be contributing to something, somewhere, somehow in distress.

After following the medical marijuana debate for some time I have realized that disclosing these things about me on a human and personal level was the only way to diplomatically share facts. I would rather not have this story to tell.

California and Colorado show us that the majority of the medical marijuana users are not those who fall under the compassionate care act. They are kids like I was, and they are people like I am. If prescription medication is one of the most commonly abused drugs by kids, why add another harmful drug for them to abuse.

At this point I would like to thank those who have dedicated their lives to the truly compassionate care for those sick and suffering from addiction and other medical diseases. I would also like to thank the physicians who uphold and respect the Hippocratic Oath, and who protect the fabric of science and its methods

Let the facts and research guide us. I urge you to protect our children, for their minds and brains are remarkable in potential and vulnerability.

Max Schwartzberg

A Father's Story

Ed Wood's son, Brian, was killed when the driver of the vehicle that hit his car asked her passenger to steer while she changed her sweater. Both of the women tested positive for marijuana and other drugs. The drivers received light sentences because, as with most states, the laws in that state did not satisfactorily address drugged driving.

On September 3, 2010, Brian Wood was killed by drugged drivers three miles south of Deception Pass, Whidbey Island, Washington. In the final second of his life, Brian braked and swerved in a futile attempt to avoid a certain collision with an out-of-control vehicle filled with drugs and four addicts on marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin. His action saved his wife Erin, pregnant with their first child.

From this tragedy we learned that laws in most states are designed to protect drugged drivers, rather than responsible drivers. The novel Deception Pass describes in vivid detail why this state of affairs exists. It is a lack of drug per se laws in most states, including Washington.

Deception Pass describes a quest for justice following a multiple vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. The maneuvers leading up to an including the courtroom drama depict the tragic legal realities in a state that has not yet enacted per se laws that define driving under the influence of drugs.

Deception Pass was written as a novel to make the legal complexities more approachable, easier to understand, and less boring than reality. Nevertheless, the courtroom actions faithfully characterize a real-life (or real-death) occurrence.

It is illegal to drive in the United States with alcohol in the driver's blood exceeding a predetermined level. Any driver with a blood alcohol content greater than or equal to 0.08% BAC is per se presumed to be driving under the influence of alcohol. Such per se laws have been credited with the dramatic lowering of the incidence of drunk driving in the US. Similar laws in other countries have had similar effects, using even lower per se definitions of DUI.

Nevertheless, in 33 states it is not unlawful to drive with any level of illegal drugs in the driver's body. Many of these same states have gone further to legalize "medical" marijuana without first putting in place a per se law to define marijuana DUI.

DeceptionPass3 is a private effort dedicated to correcting this irresponsible state of affairs. We seek the public's help and support to lobby legislatures to adopt drug per se laws.

A Doctor's Story

Christian Thurstone, MD is a board-certified child psychiatrist and addiction psychiatrist. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver and a nationally recognized researcher in the field of adolescent substance treatment.

Teen marijuana use is a big deal. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to the effects of marijuana. About 60 percent of new users every year are under the age of 18, and two-thirds of adolescent substance treatment admissions are for marijuana. Since the explosion of medical marijuana use in Colorado, my adolescent substance treatment program is seeing more referrals, and teens are reporting more severe marijuana dependence, easier access to marijuana and more favorable opinions about marijuana. Diversion of medical marijuana to youth is very common, and youth are specifically targeted by medical marijuana center marketing.

Dr. Thurstone explains the dangers of marijuana legalization.

All these changes make treatment more difficult because teens are less likely to see marijuana use as harmful, and they relapse into drug use more easily because of the increased presence of marijuana and marijuana advertisements.

Adolescence is an important time of brain development. Because their brains are not yet fully developed, teens are more likely to become addicted to marijuana than are adults. Of adolescent first-time users, 17 percent go on to develop marijuana abuse or dependence. This compares to 4 percent of people who first use marijuana as adults. And yes, marijuana can produce both psychological and physical dependence. There is no longer debate in scientific circles about whether marijuana is both physically and psychologically addictive.

New findings show that marijuana may affect brain development permanently. Adolescence is an important period of brain development, and the brain receptor to which marijuana binds plays a crucial role in this process. This is the reason why marijuana is thought to be toxic to brain development.

For example, adolescents who use marijuana before the age of 18, compared to those who have never used before that age, have up to a three-fold increased risk of developing permanent psychosis as adults. This risk is dose-dependent, meaning that the more marijuana is used, the greater the risk of developing psychotic symptoms. This relationship between teen marijuana use and psychosis has been replicated in at least seven large studies that control for a wide variety of environmental and biological factors.

Adolescents who use marijuana before the age of 17, compared to those who use the drug after that age, also have decreased verbal intelligence, decreased verbal fluency, decreased word recall, decreased visual scanning ability, decreased reaction time and decreased whole brain volume as adults. This finding mirrors animal research, which shows that adolescent exposure to tetrahydrocannabinol, the main active ingredient of marijuana, causes permanent deficits in attention, motivation and memory.

Finally, adolescent marijuana use primes the brain for developing other substance use disorders. This means that using marijuana as an adolescent may change the brain to respond more favorably to other addictive substances. Multiple studies show that teenagers who use marijuana are two to three times more likely to use other illicit substances than are their peers who don't use marijuana. While some of this increased risk may be due to social reasons (for example, teens who know where to buy marijuana are more likely to know where to buy other substances), studies show that a significant proportion of this increased risk of moving on to other substances is due to biological reasons.

Sources: Agrawal et al., 2004; Ehrenreich et al., 1999; Fergusson et al., 2000; Fergusson et al., 2005; Hall and Degenhardt, 2009; Jager and Ramsey, 2008Pope et al., 2003; Rubino et al., 2009; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2011; Wilson et al., 2000; Yamaguchi and Kandel, 1984

A Recovery Story

Greg Williams, 28, describes the freedom that recovery has given him over the past 11 years. Young People in Recovery is a series of stories told by young men and women about their new lives in recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. 

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