As Jews living in America we cannot turn a blind eye towards the social and political changes happening within our very own communities. Recent polls show that over 60% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, and 65% see marijuana as the least dangerous drug. Indeed, most Americans feel that it is safer than alcohol. With a medical marijuana dispensary set to open in Pikesville later this month, the question of marijuana – its use and legalization – is on our doorsteps. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to educate our community about marijuana, including its harmful and beneficial effects as well as how parents should approach the subject with their children.
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana, also called pot or weed, is derived from the hemp plant (cannabis sativa), which comprises at least 400 chemical compounds. One of them, called THC, is what produces marijuana’s effect on a person’s body and mind. It can be taken in various ways, such as baked into foods or smoked. When smoked or vaporized, the effects are felt almost instantly. The person’s heart rate begins to increase dramatically, breathing passages begin to loosen and enlarge, blood vessels in the eye get bigger, and the number of heart beats per minute nearly doubles. There is a pleasant euphoria and sense of relaxation. Other common reactions, which may vary dramatically among different people, include heightened perception, such as brighter colors, laughter, altered perception of time, and increased appetite.
Cannabis’s “high” happens because THC closely resembles a natural chemical in the brain called anandamide. This enables the brain to recognize marijuana’s presence after it is consumed. The THC binds onto cannabinoid receptors in the brain, which in turn alter physical and mental functions. Since the usual function of these receptors is critical for the nervous system, altering the way molecules communicate within those receptors can have serious effects. THC also causes a flood of dopamine in the brain by communicating with neurons in the reward system.
What Are the Risks?
Unfortunately, instead of relaxation and euphoria, some people ingesting marijuana experience anxiety, fear, distrust, or panic. In large doses, the drug may even cause an episode of acute psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, and a loss of the sense of personal identity. Fortunately, this fades as the drug leaves the system.
Users of marijuana often claim that it is non-addictive and harmless. While many people seem to tolerate it well, about 30% of users develop some degree of “marijuana use disorder,” and about 9% become addicted. This is especially true of those who begin using marijuana before age 18, who are four to seven times more likely to develop marijuana use disorder than adults. In 2015, about 4.0 million people in the United States met the diagnostic criteria for a marijuana use disorder.
Marijuana use disorder causes “dependence,” in which a person feels unable to function without the drug and experiences withdrawal symptoms when not taking it. Associated with heavy and binge marijuana use, dependence is caused when THC floods the brain, which adapts to large amounts of the drug by reducing production of and sensitivity to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters. When the person quits marijuana, he may have irritability, mood and sleep difficulties, decreased appetite, cravings, restlessness, and/or various forms of physical discomfort that last up to two weeks.
A prominent factor contributing to the development of marijuana use disorder is the increase in marijuana’s potency over the last 30 years. In 1990, the average potency of THC in cannabis was 3.7%. In 2014, potency had risen to 6.1%. The newest form of pot use is smoking cannabis oil, which has been extracted from the plants. This oil is wildly potent with THC, which increases the strength of the high.
Short-term negative effects of marijuana include disrupted learning and memory, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, distorted perception, loss of motor coordination, increased heart rate, and anxiety. (These effects are even greater when a person combines marijuana with other drugs, including alcohol.) Car accidents are more likely because of the slowed reaction time and impaired judgment, alertness, and coordination. Two European studies have shown that drivers with cannabis in their system while driving were at least twice as likely to have an accident.
What about the Long-Term?
Aside from the immediate effects, long-term consequences may be an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and a set of attitude and personality changes known as “amotivational syndrome.” People who have used marijuana regularly for a long period of time have described feelings of general unhappiness with life, poorer mental and physical health, relationship problems, and less career success. They have trouble finding the motivation to succeed, personally and professionally. They have diminished ability to carry out long-term plans, a sense of apathy, decreased attention to appearance and behavior, and decreased ability to concentrate for long periods of time.
In addition, marijuana is thought to occasionally trigger true psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. The amount of drug used, the age at first use, and genetic vulnerability have all been shown to influence this relationship. More research needs to be done on the link between marijuana and serious mental illnesses.
Marijuana is often called a “gateway” drug. Some studies suggest that its use is likely to precede the use of, and addiction to, other licit and illicit substances later in life, including alcohol, nicotine, and opioids. Animal studies show that THC has the ability to “prime” the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs. (This priming also occurs with alcohol and nicotine, which are also typically used before a person progresses to more harmful substances.) Nevertheless, the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances. It is also true that other factors, such as a person’s social environment, are critical in a person’s risk for drug use. An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are more likely to start with whatever substance is readily available, whether it is marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, or even social interactions with others who use drugs. All of these increase their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question.
Sometimes, Marijuana Is Good
Despite all the negative consequences of marijuana use enumerated above, the cannabis plant seems to have great potential to treat various medical conditions. “Medical marijuana” – as distinct from recreational marijuana – is legal in 29 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia. This is what will be sold at the Temescal Wellness outlet coming to Pikesville. Consumers will be required to present a “card” from a physician in order to make a purchase. Since federal law prohibits doctors from prescribing marijuana, doctors can only write a recommendation for medical marijuana, which is different than a prescription.
The term “medical marijuana” refers to using the whole, unprocessed cannabis plant or its basic extracts to treat symptoms of illness and other conditions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not recognized or approved the marijuana plant as medicine. However, scientific study of non-psychoactive chemicals in marijuana, called cannabinoids, has led to two FDA-approved medications: One treats nausea caused by chemotherapy and the other increases appetite in patients with extreme weight loss caused by AIDS. Continued research might lead to more medications.
The United Kingdom, Canada, and several European countries have also approved a mouth spray that treats muscle control problems caused by multiple sclerosis. Another medication is in clinical trials to treat childhood epilepsy but is not yet FDA-approved. Scientists are also conducting preclinical and clinical trials using marijuana and its extracts to treat other illnesses and conditions, including MS, inflammation, pain, seizures, substance use disorders, mental disorders, epilepsy, cancer, and opioid addiction.
Interestingly, Israel is a pioneer in cannabis research. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a chemist in the Hebrew University, co-discovered THC in 1964, and also discovered the brain’s endocannabinoid system in the 1990s. Presently, Dr. Adi Aran is conducting a controlled study of the effects of marijuana oil on children with severe autism. Israel, today, is a global leader in medical marijuana research and production.
In 2016 Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky paskened that marijuana is kosher l’Pesach but is limited to medical use because of its kitni’os status. In 2013, Rabbi Efraim Zalmanovich paskened that pot is kosher for medical use but not for recreational purposes: “Taking drugs to escape this world in any excessive way is certainly forbidden,” he said. In America, the OU has given a hechsher to medical marijuana in New York State to “…alleviate the suffering resulting from serious and debilitating medical conditions. New York residents who are experiencing intense pain, can now use OU-supervised Vireo Health medical marijuana and not be concerned that the product might contain non-kosher ingredients.”
Marijuana in Pikesville
Many community members are upset about Temescal Wellness and met with the Baltimore County Board of Appeals in October. The concerns ranged from an increase in crime to the potential for the dispensary to sell recreational marijuana if it were to be made legal in Maryland. Community activist Howard Needle called the dispensary “a real threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the communities around it.” Others don’t agree. One man said, “I neither use nor think that using is a good idea. I just think that adults who want to use for medical reasons should have the right to do so safely.” Those in favor believe that crime and violence, which comes from feuds among illicit drug dealers, will not be a problem; criminals will avoid the area because it will be closely watched by law enforcement. Rather, the dispensary will attract people who normally buy from dealers but want a safer, more convenient option and people with medical problems.
Talking to your Teens
Teens experiment with pot for many reasons, including peer pressure, curiosity, anxiety, and boredom. Getting high can also be a way to avoid the challenges of growing up. Young people who have undiagnosed and untreated mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, or ADHD, or who have experienced trauma also might experiment with marijuana.
Most parents would be dismayed at such activity, especially frum parents. They might be tempted to think that their children will never hear about pot or be offered some. For many of us, perhaps this is the case. Many parents, however, can assume that their children will at least hear about marijuana and might be persuaded try it. Legalization just makes it more difficult to counter teens’ assertion that, since it is legal, what’s wrong with using it? (Actually, the same is true of alcohol, and the following recommendations by experts apply to talking to teens about alcohol.)
To prevent a problem with marijuana, parents should first educate themselves about the drug. This article is a good start. They should feel comfortable discussing the topic with their children. As with many other parenting challenges, communication is key. Parents should explain the risks – that the research is clear: using marijuana during adolescence could have a long-term impact on a teen’s memory, problem-solving skills and critical thinking. Unfortunately, teens do not want to hear that, says pediatrician Dr. Larry Wolk, Colorado’s chief medical officer. “The research shows that that’s a turn-off.” Wolk encourages parents to talk to their children not only about the health risks but about what they stand to lose personally if they use marijuana during their teenage years. He suggests saying something like, “Well, you’re putting in jeopardy your potential to do well in school (or to graduate or to be successful). And once you get your driver’s license, marijuana does impair you if you’re going to use it and drive, and it does impair you if you’re trying to study or get a good job.”
It’s also very helpful to give teens a way out if someone offers them a joint. Give them pointers on how to say, “No, thanks, I’ve tried it” or “No, thanks, I have a test tomorrow. I want a clear head.”
The organization Partnership for Drug-Free Kids publishes an excellent brochure, “Marijuana Talk Kit: What You Need to Know to Talk to your Kids about Marijuana.” It recommends getting in the right frame of mind before talking about marijuana and setting the stage for an effective conversation. This includes having an open mind and listening, not judging or condemning the child; being calm and relaxed, as anger or panic will make it harder to achieve one’s goals; being positive, respectful, and understanding; and not lecturing.
What Do I Say?
The “Marijuana Talk Kit” even provides suggestions for answers to common arguments and questions that parents are likely to hear. For instance, if the child says, “I’m only doing it once in a while, on weekends, so it’s not a big deal,” the parent can respond: “What would make it feel like a big deal to you?” This gets them to think about the future, and what their boundaries are. It will give the parents insight into what’s important to their child. If use progresses and some of these boundaries are crossed, the parent can bring that up at a later date. Many other scenarios are presented of teen statements and effective parental responses. It is worthwhile downloading the entire brochure.
The brochure concludes with “the bottom line”: “The drug landscape will continue to change with the times, but the one thing that will remain constant is the need for support and information when raising a child. You are the most important, and the most powerful influence in your child’s life. We’re here to help you along the way.”
For more information about marijuana, see National Institute on Drug Abuse, www.drugabuse.gov and Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, www.drugfree.org, where you can read and download the “Marijuana Talk Kit.”