Marijuana addictions in teens growing
Stronger cannabis may explain sharp increase in youths in treatment

By MEGAN TWOHEY, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted: Feb. 16, 2005

Jenny was 13 when she tried marijuana for the first time.

She was with friends who were smoking a blunt, a cigar filled with cannabis. They urged her to take a puff.

Within a year, the Racine teen was using the drug morning, noon and night.

"I couldn't go to sleep or get up in the morning without smoking a blunt," said Jenny, now 17, whose last name is being withheld because she's a minor.

The drug had a similar effect on Marcakaven Riley.

"I'd smoke every day," the 19-year-old said. "I'd smoke at, like, 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 11 p.m."

A likely reason, experts say: It's not their parents' marijuana.

According to federally funded research, today's cannabis is five times as strong as it was in the 1970s.

That helps explain why a growing number of teens are becoming dependent on the drug, substance-abuse experts said.

In Wisconsin, the number of teens entering government-funded treatment for marijuana has increased by a few hundred percent since 1992. Private centers also are treating more teens with marijuana addiction.

"The drug is delivered to the brain at a more rapid pace, and has stronger and longer effect," said Michael Miller, medical director of the NewStart alcohol and drug treatment program at Meriter Hospital in Madison. "This makes it more rewarding, but also more likely to induce tolerance and true addiction."

When they hear that, parents are often shocked, said Dave Poehlman, coordinator of clinical services at the Lawrence Center at Waukesha Memorial Hospital.

"Their jaws drop when I tell them that the marijuana they smoked was only a fraction as pure as the marijuana today."

Number of addicted growing

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has linked the increased potency of marijuana to a growing addiction to the drug.

Researchers there discovered last year that the number of adults using marijuana nationwide had remained the same between 1992 and 2002, but that the number of adults addicted to the drug had increased 25%.

"We scratched our heads, and said, 'How can we explain that?' " said Wilson Compton, the lead author of the study.

For years, the institute had been funding studies of marijuana seized by police. They showed that hydroponic growing techniques and selective use of seeds had made the drug much more potent.

In those studies, Compton said, "we found a correlation."

There has yet to be a comparable long-term study on teenage marijuana addiction, Compton said.

But substance-abuse experts said teenagers are even more likely to become dependent on the increasingly strong drug. Their brains are still developing, and their lives are often an emotional roller coaster.

In Wisconsin, the number of teens entering government-funded treatment centers for marijuana jumped from 193 in 1992 to 1,042 in 2003, though data from Milwaukee and Dane counties weren't included until 2000 and 2001.

During that time, the percentage of high school students who say they have smoked marijuana in the past month doubled to 22% - though the number is down from a high of 25.1% in 2001.

Once they're dependent, teens often tumble into truancy, crime and depression, say substance-abuse counselors.

"Back in the day, kids smoked marijuana, giggled and ate food," said Cleon Suggs, a counselor at the Milwaukee Adolescent Health Program. "Today, the drug produces much more disruptive behavior. They can't concentrate. They don't go to school. They get totally detached from life."

That's what happened to Jenny, who grew up in a two-parent, upper-middle-class home.

During her freshman year, she got involved with a boyfriend who dealt marijuana. Every day they would leave school to smoke blunts at a friend's house. The group would play Nintendo and horse around.

As Jenny saw it, "It was the perfect life." That she couldn't walk a straight line when she was high didn't worry her.

"Smoking made me feel weightless and happy," she said.

By her sophomore year, Jenny was failing her classes and had accumulated hundreds of truancy offenses.

But instead of viewing marijuana as the source of her problems, she viewed it as her escape.

"When my friends and I didn't have money to buy marijuana, life was miserable," Jenny recalled. "That's when we had to sit there and deal with our problems."

Riley, of Racine, was so hooked on the drug by his sophomore year that he began selling marijuana to support his habit.

The lanky teen who had started as a small forward on the basketball team eventually got kicked out of school for showing up high all the time.

But he kept using after he landed in an alternative school and, later, juvenile probation.

"I'd just zone and be in my own world," Riley said. "You can smoke so much that you don't know where you are. Someone can tap your shoulder, and you don't even feel it."

Neither Riley nor Jenny ended up in treatment. But both were forced to stop smoking.

Last year, Riley was sent to prison after he was convicted of leading police on a high-speed chase. He's out now on probation. This time around, his probation includes regular drug testing.

Jenny, meanwhile, has been able to straighten her life out with the help of an intensive program for troubled youth. She now has her heart set on joining the Marines. To do so, she must pass a drug test.

But not smoking marijuana is proving difficult.

"Every morning I get up and say: I'm not going to smoke today," Jenny said. "But it's hard. It's really hard."