Tag Archives: childhood trauma

Legal Marijuana Imperils Traffic Safety, Adds Mental Health Burden

By Dean Whitlock, a freelance writer from Thetford, Vermont, writes about safety as it relates to marijuana.  The article appeared in Vermont Digger on May 2, 2017.

The discussions of H.170, which would legalize possession and home-growing of small quantities of marijuana, have focused a lot on the danger to teenagers, which is appropriate since adolescents are in a stage of neural development that makes them much more likely to become addicted, develop mental health conditions, and suffer decreases in cognitive processing and memory retention. The problem with this focus is that people over 21, particularly up to the age of 25 or 26, are still susceptible to all of these effects, just at a lower level of risk.

That point aside, the area where every age runs the same risk is on the highway. Again, teens and young adults are more at risk because they tend to take more risks in the first place. They are also less experienced with driving and with the use of alcohol and drugs. But adults do make the same stupid mistake of driving under the influence.

According to the best data we have available, drinking alcohol before driving increases the risk of accident five-fold at the still-legal .08 blood level. Driving under the influence of marijuana doubles your risk. That being the case, we would expect to find considerably more people dying on the roads because of alcohol then because of marijuana. The data on traffic accident fatalities that we have from the Vermont Department of Safety tell a somewhat different story:

This data is based on blood tests that measure active THC, so we can be reasonably sure that the drivers had used marijuana recently enough to still be DUI.

Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana Imperils Safety

Note the small difference between the number of deaths due to alcohol and the number due to marijuana. The most likely reason for this is that many marijuana users think it’s OK to drive after using. For teenagers, we have clear evidence for that from our Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Here’s the 2015 data:

Reports from both Colorado and Washington indicate that the same must be happening there. While accidents and fatalities involving drunk drivers went down in recent years, the numbers involving marijuana went up.

Why is this happening? Because we are not teaching people – young or old – that marijuana impairs your ability to drive. At a well-attended forum on marijuana effects held in Burlington last month, one attendee stood up and insisted that marijuana helps people drive more carefully, and this message pervades the popular websites that cater to people interested in learning more about marijuana from sources “untainted” by officials like police officers and scientists.

It’s important to note that the traffic fatality data shown above only includes deaths in accidents. It does not include the five Harwood teenagers killed on I-89 last October. The driver of the car that hit theirs, Steve Bourgoin (36, hardly a teen), has been charged with second-degree murder, so their deaths are not considered to be due to a traffic accident.

Addiction is Not a Crime

Addiction is not a crime, it is a mental health issue, and the behavior of users who suffer acute or chronic psychotic episodes goes far beyond the usual definition of addiction.

When Bourgoin’s blood toxicology report was completed, authorities withheld the contents pending trial; however, Vermont investigative reporter Mike Donoghue, writing for Vermont News First, quoted several sources in saying that there was active THC in Bourgoin’s blood at the time of the accident. Since then, Vermont Rep. Ben Joseph, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, a retired judge, has reported being told the same thing by contacts of his in the state legal apparatus.

As reported on VTDigger, Bourgoin told friends that he suffered from anxiety and PTSD due to childhood trauma, and his former girlfriend told detectives that he self-treated with marijuana for “mood spells.” Court documents quote her saying, “It was always very evident when he was out [of marijuana], as he would be more angry and violent during those times.”

Anger is one of marijuana’s withdrawal symptoms, and it is a more addictive drug than most people think. A review of several studies of treatment methods for marijuana addiction found that one-year abstinence rates for adults, even under the most effective treatments, ranged only from 19 to 29 percent.

In a 20-year study involving more than 2000 U.S. war veterans being treated for PTSD, the vets who used medical marijuana along with the standard therapy reported more violent behaviors and worse outcomes after treatment than vets who didn’t use marijuana. The heaviest users showed the strongest effects. Another study found that marijuana use resulted in increased suicidal ideation among marijuana users.

Marijuana and Mental Health Problems

There are other correlations between marijuana and serious mental health problems. Since 2002, a series of studies in Europe have reported that individuals who use cannabis have a greater risk of developing psychotic symptoms. Not only does marijuana bring on symptoms earlier and make them worse, it is a causative factor.

A Finnish study published this past November compared sets of twins where one used marijuana heavily and the other did not. Heavy use increased the risk of developing psychosis by a factor of 3.5. Again, the data indicated that, in many cases, marijuana abuse caused the psychosis, not the other way around. The newly released report on marijuana from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences agrees with these findings.

Addiction is not a crime, it is a mental health issue, and the behavior of users who suffer acute or chronic psychotic episodes goes far beyond the usual definition of addiction. These sufferers needs effective treatment far more than jail time. And these new research findings, combined with Vermont’s recent traffic fatality data, highlight the fact that marijuana is not harmless. Legalizing recreational marijuana in Vermont would not be a simple matter.

Vermont has already decriminalized marijuana use. What we haven’t done is provide a mental health system that can deal with the thousands of cases of addiction, psychosis, and other mental illnesses that we already have in our state, nor have we done nearly enough to educate Vermonters about marijuana’s harms, in order to prevent tragedies from happening.

Legalizing marijuana – whether like alcohol or tobacco – will only make our mental health burden worse, while it makes our highways far less safe.

A former supporter of legalization, Whitlock is now opposed. He is a member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM-VT)

Marijuana Can’t Treat the Opiate, Heroin Epidemic

Any marijuana use leads to less intelligence potential, less empathy for life, less motivation and poorer decision making.  A war on drugs is a protection and defense of our brains.   Governor Susana Martinez probably recognizes how Colorado’s marijuana problem leads to the drug epidemic and filters into New Mexico’s substance abuse issues.   Read about her veto in Part 1.

One young man who gave us a testimony explained how his marijuana use led directly to heroin addiction.

In Colorado, Dr. Libby Stuyt, addictions psychiatrist, traces a direct line from marijuana legalization to the heroin epidemic.    Colorado’s recent report on heroin has shown that the number of deaths from heroin overdose have doubled between 2011 and 2015.

In fact, Pueblo County, has suffered from heroin use and addiction more than any other Colorado county.  Pueblo, Denver and Boulder have the highest rates of youth marijuana use.   Southern Colorado is suffering the most from the heroin epidemic. Counties that have banned marijuana dispensaries have been affected the least by the heroin.

Misunderstanding of the Opioid and Heroin Epidemic

Since the government has clamped down on opiate prescriptions, more users have replaced the pain drugs with heroin.  Since the legalization of marijuana, Mexican cartels have replaced much of their marijuana with heroin.  Heroin is now cheaper and addicts find it easier to get heroin than prescription pills.

Politically there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the opioid epidemic. If it was initially caused by over prescribing of medications, that’s no longer primarily the case.   Seth Leibsohn wrote an insightful article on the subject last week. The abuse of opioid prescriptions acquired legitimately constitutes a small portion of the overdose problem, he said. *

A simple crackdown on prescriptions will not solve the problem, according to Maia Szalavitz.  Although Szalavitz misunderstands the  inherent danger in using marijuana,* she explains the underlying causes of substance abuse quite well.  Impulsive children are at high risk of becoming drug users, but so are some highly cautious and anxious young people.   Two thirds of people with opioid addictions have had severely traumatic childhoods, and the more exposure to trauma, the higher the risk.  We need to help abused, neglected, fragile and otherwise traumatized children before they turn to self-medication as teens.  On the other hand, we should also provide tools and teach coping skills to children who are impulsive, ADHD or anxious.   (Overmedicating children doesn’t allow them to develop the skills needed to transition into adulthood.)

Let’s Help People Get off ALL Drugs

Effective treatment for addictions is getting off all drugs, not going to other harmful, brain-altering substances.   “The goal in helping a loved one with a substance use problem is not to reduce their use. It is to stop drug use,” according to Sven-Olov Carlsson of Drug Policy Futures.  He gave the opening address at the World Federation of Drugs Conference in Vienna last year.  As Carlsson said, the current heroin epidemic proves that “harm reduction” is not saving lives.

No one sets out to become an addict.   Fortunately, more people and states are realizing the foolishness of allowing “medical” marijuana for intractable pain.  It opens up a Pandora’s Box of problems, as in California and elsewhere.

Addiction specialists estimate that one in five American adults is addicted to drugs or alcohol.  With such large numbers, there should be no “stigma” attached to addiction or treatment.  A new or revised health care act should maintain the provision to treat addiction.

Those who are addicted have a strong need to protect a secret.  Their brains have been hijacked and there isn’t a straight path back to previous functioning.

Optimum treatment requires a period of time when the person is not using any substance of addiction in order for the brain to heal.  During that time, the person needs to be able to learn new things. The lack of treatment resources which allows this to happen is a big barrier to recovery.   Marijuana cannot be used to treat this current drug epidemic.

___________________________________________________________________________*  Another recent article explains how doctors began to take pain seriously, treating it as a fifth vital sign.  Szalavitz based her 10% addiction rate for marijuana on the weaker pot of the ’70s and ’80s, not the pot of today.  She also disregarded teen users of pot.


5 Reasons Marijuana is a Gateway Drug

Student Asked Attorney General if Marijuana is a Gateway to Heroin

When Attorney General Loretta Lynch went to Kentucky last week to address the heroin epidemic, a high school student asked if marijuana is a gateway to heroin addiction.   The Attorney General never denied that marijuana may have an influence, but she drew a closer connection to the overuse of pills.  The marijuana lobby claimed she said ‘marijuana is not a gateway drug.’  Her implication was that opiate pain pills may have the most direct link and immediate link to heroin addiction.  (Heroin is cheap right now and it’s harder to get opiate pain pills.)

Certain biologists, addiction specialists, ONDCP director Michael Botticelli and parents are most capable of answering this question.  Traditionally marijuana, alcohol and tobacco are considered gateways to other drugs. Under many circumstances, teen marijuana  experimentation leads to the usage of other harmful drugs, including those that cause toxic overdose.   Scientific studies on the drug have shown its ability to damage brain circuitry.  It numbs the reward system, sending users on a search for a stronger high. Peer influence or personality traits can spiral into the use of drugs beyond marijuana. Here are some reasons why marijuana tempts someone to open the gate and try other drugs.

Marijuana advocates dismiss the gateway “theory,” but they also deny that marijuana affects different people very differently.   It is not part of their agenda to accept or acknowledge these differences.

1. Biological Evidence and Plateau Effect:

Studies showing the damaging effects marijuana has on dopamine receptors and our brain’s reward system suggest marijuana may lead to the use of many other different drugs. In one study done by the University of Michigan Medical School, researchers found a negative correlation between the amount of marijuana consumed over time and the amount of dopamine that was released in the brain in response. This study suggests a change in the reward system over time with a high-inducing drug like marijuana. This decrease in the amount of dopamine released creates a plateau effect. Smokers will then seek other drugs in order to achieve the high they used to experience with pot.

Source: NIDA

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says cannabinoids are able to decrease the reactivity of brain dopamine reward circuits over time, leaving frequent marijuana users vulnerable to other drug addiction. Additionally, THC promotes an enhanced response to other drugs in the same way that alcohol and nicotine do, which may lead to the progression of more drug addictions that may cause toxic overdose.

2. Social Environment:

It is important to consider the pot smoker’s social environment.   Most high schoolers now say it’s easier to get marijuana than alcohol. Those who begin using pot and alcohol, usually the first two illicit substances of abuse,  are likely surrounded by other frequent users.   In no time some of these peers will have moved on to chasing other highs.   If your teen is already high on pot or inebriated — even slightly —  it’s hard to resist the invite from a friend to try another substance.   A teen who has resolved to do “only pot” can quickly break down and try other drugs when he or she has lost inhibitions.

3. Craving the High:

Marijuana, alongside alcohol, is one of the most accessible high-inducing drugs on the market, making it a gateway drug to intoxication. Jon Daily, an adolescent and young adult addiction specialist in California explains that he and his colleagues treat drug addicts who were always first addicted to marijuana and/or alcohol.  In his practice, over-prescribing by doctors did not cause the problem.   Jon contends that it is not necessarily the substance that people get hooked on that is really important.  (Please take note that the price of heroin is so low right now. )  “Addicts are hooked on intoxication,” so it makes sense that those who become opiate or heroin addicts began with marijuana because it was the most readily available drug which later lead to their pathological relationship to getting high.    Daily does mention a very small portion who get addicted because they were given pain pills after surgery, but these people are the exception.

4. Childhood Trauma or Sexual abuse can lead to marijuana use to numb the pain, typically followed by stimulants:

Our children who grow up in poverty or who are victims of abuse can be most at the most risk.  It is one reason that Parents Opposed to Pot always recommends counseling over drug usage for victims of trauma and asks that parents, schools and communities be supportive.  Victims of trauma will initially use marijuana and alcohol to create a numbing effect, and to allow disassociation.   When the numbing is too much and the victims need to feel energized and alive again, stimulants such as as speed, cocaine and opiates would be used.   It’s a vicious cycle.  (Of course this cycling is not limited to trauma victims; it is the type of cycling that Lady Gaga describes also.)  Marijuana and heroin have the greatest numbing effect, according to one paper on the subject.  Read Janina Fisher’s paper on Traumatic Abuse and Addiction.   

Substance abusing parents can be violent and neglectful.  It is in this way that many young people and people whose parents were substance abusers become addicted themselves.  (There is much more to drug abuse than addictive genes.)   Today multi-substance abuse or addiction is the norm.

5. Impoverished communities are preyed upon by gangs who will use multiple drugs:

Children of poverty are also at risk.  One of the most prevalent subcultures in this country is that of drug dealing gangs.   Gangs prey on poor and minority communities.  (Marijuana stores seem to be following that example.)  These gangs use intimidation and violence to enforce their rule and make their money.    They often appear to be the leaders in their communities who have the most money and power.    Check out the story of one man, Eddie Martinez, who grew up in the Chicago projects.  He managed to overcome a life of drug dealing and  crime.  Today he advises young people to steer clear of the dangers of marijuana, drugs and its victims.

Other Gateway Drugs or Reasons for Addiction?

What about ADHD drug usage and Addictive personalities?

For some people, marijuana use a one-time event, or something only used occasionally.  There are others who can’t seem to stop, for whom marijuana is an addiction.  Yet some writers and theorists discard the larger society’s expectations that teens will use drugs plays a roll in addiction.

Addiction counselors notice that a large number of young people who show up for treatment were diagnosed with ADHD.   Those who were given Ritalin, Adderall or other stimulant drugs also have a high potential to abuse marijuana.  However, we do not know if these young people become addicted because of the ADHD or because these youth have brains that had already been altered by the ADHD drugs at a young age.   Government and educators would be wise to come up with an alternative to using powerful mind-altering drugs for those who have difficulty concentrating.

Another theory is what is known as an addictive personality. Especially males, who are often considered “risk-takers,” have a greater chance of becoming addicts when they are willing to engage in extreme behaviors. So while marijuana presents itself as a gateway drug to many, the risks to an individual depends their personal choices.

THE RELATIONSHIP to ADHD drugs and marijuana, opiate and heroin abuse, as well as the roll of addictive personalities in this epidemic needs to be studied further.

(Your child or teen is at risk for developing three other negative outcomes from marijuana experimentation: addiction to marijuana, loss of mental abilities and/or mental illness.)

NOTE: Teen tobacco use has gone way down, as fewer adults smoke.  There is nothing fashionable about it at this time.  However, adult marijuana use is growing and a corresponding growth in youth usage can be expected.  It is just as the marijuana lobby hopes.