Island Forum: Marijuana is not ‘harmless’

Julie Ellner, M.D. - Contributed Photo
Julie Ellner, M.D.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

I am glad to report that most kids I see on Mercer Island do not use drugs or alcohol. Results from the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, the Search Institute’s Profiles of Student Life, and MI Communities That Care Social Norms Survey support this observation. Yet as a physician who cares for Island children, I believe we should all be concerned about the segment of Island teens who use marijuana. As parents, physicians and adults, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves to help young people understand there are very real risks and consequences associated with marijuana use.

Contrary to common belief, marijuana is addictive. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has publicized that more teens are now in treatment for marijuana dependency than for alcohol or all other illegal drugs combined. Marijuana is estimated to produce addiction in approximately nine percent of those who use it at least once. This rate increases to about 16 percent for users who start in their teens and 25-50 percent among daily users. Withdrawal symptoms are similar in type and severity to those of nicotine withdrawal: irritability, sleeping difficulties, anxiety and craving.

Marijuana is not harmless. It is a contributing factor in over 374,000 emergency room visits each year in the United States. Driving under the influence of marijuana is the most common cause of fatal accidents due to illicit drug use.

From what I see as a practicing physician, kids on Mercer Island are using marijuana to be “cool” and to “fit in.” They also self-medicate for social anxiety, depression, chronic pain and even asthma.   Marijuana addiction is a pediatric onset disease, and it is not appropriate for teens to be using it medicinally. According to Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prevention of first use is critical.

Arm yourself with facts and talk to your kids. Alertness, coordination and reaction time are all decreased with marijuana use. Memory and judgment impairment, increased appetite, increased heart rate and bloodshot eyes are also among the drug’s short-term side effects. Heavy marijuana use impairs young people’s ability to concentrate and retain information. Marijuana can also cause anxiety, fear, distrust, panic, as well as acute psychosis (including hallucinations, delusions and paranoia). Frequent users may also increase the possibility of a diagnosis of depression or psychosis later in life.

As a community, we can come together to further reduce the rate of marijuana use among Island youth. Mercer Island is a community of caring adults with a coalition whose sole focus is the prevention of youth substance use (MI Communities That Care). By educating ourselves and our kids about the myths and facts surrounding cannabis, I have no doubt we can reduce the harmful effects caused by this drug. Act now and learn more at drugfree.org or go to www.mercerisland-ctc.com to locate a variety of helpful resources.

Julie Ellner, M.D., is a pediatrician at MI Pediatrics.


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