HealthZette

Expert Warns of Pot’s Higher Potency: ‘It’s Like Comparing Beer to Pure Grain Alcohol’

Doctor on 'The Laura Ingraham Show' shares critical information for families who care about their kids' futures

Evidence is accumulating that points, more and more, to the significant harm that marijuana can do to young people’s health — and a major factor is the increased potency of the drug now widely available.

As states push to legalize pot, doctors are scrambling to find ways to deter young people from getting hooked on it, for the sake of their brain development, overall well-being, and healthy futures.

“All the evidence is that [the] early onset of drug use while the brain is still developing has serious negative consequences on mental health,” Dr. David Smith, founder of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics of San Francisco and a fellow and past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said Tuesday on “The Laura Ingraham Show.”

Marijuana use, he said, “correlates with decreased school performance, [and] the question is … what accounts for the recent surge in problems?”

Smith said this “surge in problems” is expressed through the more extreme events tied to marijuana usage — vomiting and “bad trips,” as he called them. He indicated that these bad events are linked to the higher-potency pot, including edibles.

Another looming issue with more dangerous pot usage is the emergence of pot “concentrates” — any product derived through a cannabinoid extraction process. Recreational marijuana dispensaries are full of them.

“Many concentrates are abundant in specific cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or Cannabidiol (CBD),” notes Colorado Pot Guide. THC is the most popular cannabinoid, due to its psychoactive and pain-killing effects.

Smith said pot concentrates have up to 50, 60, and even 70 percent THC, “whereas the marijuana of the ’60s that caused problems — and that’s what people are familiar with — is about 2 to 4 percent [THC],” said Smith. “It’s like comparing beer to pure grain alcohol.”

Smith doubts the soaring popularity and normalization of pot is what is to blame for the surges in worrisome marijuana reactions.

“I don’t think the evidence supports that increased use is causing the problem, because in northern California the use has been high for a long time,” he explained. “I think it is the potency of the marijuana, and what I object to the most is the commercialization. In other words, the marijuana industry is aimed at targeting young people.”

Related: Marijuana Is Hardly the Healthy Alternative to Alcohol Millennials Think It Is

Ingraham added to this, noting, “It’s all so beautifully laid out — in most of these boutiques, it’s chocolate-flavored marijuana, it’s marijuana brownies, there’s cookies, there’s cupcakes … Combine that with the high potency, and you’re really off to the races for other medical problems.”

An important takeaway for parents and families: Keep the kids away from it for as long as possible. That extra time of growth without pot is crucial.

“Age of onset is a factor in the developing brain, we know that … It delays the maturity of the brain,” said Smith. “We also know that there is alteration in the learning centers; young people use marijuana because it relieves anxiety. But it also down-regulates the neurotransmitters … It impairs the normal maturation and neurochemistry of the brain, so that the brain can’t learn to adapt to normal situations.”

Smith compared it to alcohol: “You have one glass of wine, it relieves anxiety. You have a fifth of whiskey, and it produces all sorts of problems.”

So what is the path forward in terms of deterring young people from getting high? Perhaps studying why cigarette smoking is down is part of it.

“We have to learn about what’s working,” said Smith. “We’ve done an excellent job [of] bending the curve of cigarettes — remember, there’s over 300,000 people a year that die of cigarette addiction, and we at one time thought, ‘Well, there’s nothing to be done to change that.’ Well, there’s been a trend of denormalization toward cigarette smoking, and we have to look at the models that work.”

Related: Federal Crackdown on Pot Businesses Unlikely, Say Experts

Smith explained the large forces at play that work against youth today.

“In general, the big battles are between government and the marijuana producers,” he explained. “That’s not the way a physician looks at it; a physician looks at it in terms of factual science. As a grandfather myself, what I want to do is figure out how to help families.”

He added, “We spend a lot of time working with families, and one of the things that is clear to me is that families don’t understand what’s happening with the potent forms of marijuana. They don’t understand the dark web, where young people go on and learn about concentrates and butane hash oil — unless you work with these young people, you don’t even know this world exists.”

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What parents should remember, said Smith, is to get accurate information and keep kids from partaking in marijuana for as long as possible.

“Accurate information, and delay, delay, delay,” he told Ingraham and her listeners.

And remember to be wise about the bottom line in the marijuana business, he suggested.

“One of the things that came out with the suits against the tobacco industry is [that] they basically had a philosophy of, ‘Get them early, and you have a lifetime customer.’ Early-onset marijuana can produce a lifetime of issues.”

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor with LifeZette. Follow her on Twitter.