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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
Neither Riley nor Jenny ended up in
treatment. But both were forced to stop
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
But not smoking marijuana is proving
"Every morning I get up and say: I'm
not going to smoke today," Jenny said.
"But it's hard. It's really hard."