From Choices


Evidence suggests that marijuana is an addictive drug — not the "harmless herb" that has been talked about for years. Many teens believe that marijuana is "just a plant" or not as bad as heroin or cocaine. The facts are presented.

If you think pot is a harmless herb, think again. The evidence is mounting that marijuana is an addictive drug.

Rhianne Lexoss was already buzzed from a couple of Budweisers when she decided to smoke marijuana for the first time with her friends. She was 11 years old. "I was at a New Year's Eve party and I was like, Why not try it?

Everybody's doing it." Besides, Rhianne, who is from Tucson, Ariz., had heard that marijuana, also known as "pot," "weed," and "bud," wasn't addictive. "I thought marijuana wasn't even a drug. It's a plant."

Rhianne's perception of marijuana isn't uncommon. Odaro B., 17, of New York City, had thought "smoking weed was no big deal," before he puffed on a joint for the first time. After all, "there were worse drugs out there, like heroin and cocaine," he says.

Soon after the New Year's Eve party, Rhianne began getting high three times a day. Some days she'd smoke as many as 20 joints. "Pot made me feel relaxed, like I didn't have a care in the world," recalls Rhianne, who later stopped going to school in favor of hanging out with friends "and smoking bud all day."

Now, at age 17, Rhianne is a resident patient in the drug rehabilitation program at Phoenix House in San Diego, Calif. "After a while, I realized that I was missing out on things other kids my age were doing, like going to the prom and playing sports, because I was stoned all the time. I was addicted to smoking pot."

Odaro confesses that he, too, became dependent on marijuana. "I'd smoke pot whenever I got upset with my family, which was a lot. I'd end up smoking up to eight joints a day. It was like I couldn't stop. That's when I figured out I had a problem and needed to get help."

Pot addicts

Odaro and Rhianne were among the thousands of people who sought treatment for marijuana abuse last year. They learned the hard way that pot is not the harmless feel-good herb that many people, adults and teens alike, talk about.

Marijuana is an addictive drug, according to the American Society of Addictive Medicine. In June of 1997, a team of laboratory researchers found that marijuana produced the same biochemical changes in the brains of rats as highly addictive drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, nicotine, and alcohol.

The researchers discovered that smoking pot seems to alter the brain chemistry of users in a way that makes them more vulnerable to using drugs like heroin and cocaine. That could explain why 90 percent of hard-drug users say that they used marijuana first.

Another way addiction specialists define addiction is by noting what happens when a substance is withdrawn. THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active ingredient in marijuana.

In one study, subjects who were given high-dose THC pills for three weeks experienced irritability, restlessness, sleep disturbances, sweating, and nausea when they stopped taking the THC pills.

Pot and the body

Regular use of pot can lead to a host of serious physical and psychological problems, from panic attacks and impaired judgment to delayed puberty and lung cancer.

Marijuana contains 150 different elements, including THC. When marijuana is smoked, THC flows through the bloodstream and interacts with different areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, and the cerebellum, which controls movement. The highest concentration of THC, however, binds with the middle of the brain. It is this binding that triggers the secretion of the feel-good hormone dopamine. This is what produces a feeling of mellowness or carefree numbness — a "high."

Because marijuana affects the hippocampus, the part of your brain that forms new memories, smoking it can inhibit new memory formation. That can be a serious problem if you're in school, trying to learn. There have been no studies on the long-term effects of marijuana on child and adolescent brains, so the extent to which smoking pot permanently damages brain cells is unknown.

The Hype

It appears that many teens are unaware of the dangers of pot smoking. The use of marijuana among teenagers has more than doubled since 1992, after a steady decline throughout the 1980s.

In 1997, one in six 10th-graders reported that he or she was a current marijuana user, according to an annual University of Michigan survey of drug use among young people. And according to a federal survey, about one third of high school seniors have tried or used marijuana. So how did pot get such a harmless, party-friendly rep? After all, it is illegal to possess or use marijuana. But perhaps you don't know that, because it's always around-at parties, concerts, maybe even at school.

Marijuana is also sold on street corners, from swanky neighborhoods to run-down inner cities. In fact, it's easier for a teenager to buy a bag of marijuana than to purchase a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of beer, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

During the past few years, popular music groups have also glamorized or endorsed smoking marijuana by sporting marijuana-leaf jewelry or glorifying pot in their song lyrics.

Some of the adults you know may admit to having smoked marijuana during the 1960s and 1970s, which was a time of rampant drug experimentation. And now, you notice that they seem just fine and healthy. So you ask yourself, If they smoked pot, why can't I?

Then vs. Now

For one thing, the marijuana that was smoked in the past was very different from the kind that's being smoked now. Scientists confirm that sophisticated cultivation of marijuana plants produces marijuana with THC levels that may be four times greater than the 1974 variety.

In addition, people are now smoking marijuana in greater quantities, as in blunts, which are hollowed-out cigars packed with pot and sometimes laced with other substances such as heroin or even crack cocaine.

A Crutch

Marijuana can also become a psychological crutch, says Martha Gagne, director of the American Council for Drug Education.

"Marijuana is a drug that masks reality," says Gagne. "People use it to forget about their problems, and eventually, it becomes a crutch to deal with life," she continues. Marijuana abuse develops, she says, when users find it impossible to cope with everyday life unless they are high.

That was what happened to 15year-old Sarah. (Sarah, who is from Blue Island, Ill., asked that Choices not use her last name.) "I used to smoke pot to try to get away from the pain of my dad leaving my mom," she says, "so I'd smoke all the time. But after a while, I realized the pain was still there."

Kathy, 19, of St. Louis, Mo., turned to pot when school became overwhelmingly stressful. "I was having a crazy, hard time one semester, so all I wanted to do when I got home was smoke a bowl and chill out," she says. "It became my way of life, of dealing." (Kathy also asked that Choices keep her last name confidential.)

Not everyone who uses marijuana becomes addicted. However, when a casual user starts to smoke more pot, he or she can develop a tolerance to the drug, and may require more of the drug to get high. Those who get completely hooked on pot, Gagne points out, are usually going through an emotionally difficult transition, such as a divorce, a move, or a death in the family. In this way, Sarah and Kathy were perfect examples of students at risk of developing a drug dependence.

"People develop a compulsive need to use marijuana, despite the harm it causes to themselves," explains Dr. Terry Horton, the medical director and vice president of Phoenix House in New York City.

Saying No

Educators and the government have been pumping more dollars and effort into drug education, including a $195 million government-financed advertising campaign to warn Americans about the dangers of marijuana.

Recent surveys show that kids seem to be catching on. The number of teens who reported using pot dropped slightly in 1997 — the first drop after a five-year climb. And the percentage of 8th-graders who said they disapprove of drug use rose slightly (by 1.5 percent) to 78 percent in 1997.

Tamika Campbell, 18, of Atlanta, Ga., is one of those disapproving teens. "I recently learned from PRIDE, a drug-education program at school, that pot is not an herb," she says. "It's an illegal drug, with dangerous chemicals and stuff."

Many of the new drug-education efforts have gotten away from the simplistic 'Just say no'" message of the 1980s. It's more than a matter of knowing how to say 'no', says Martha Gagne.

"Because self-esteem and peer pressure are inextricably linked, kids have to feel confident in order to make decisions not to use drugs," she explains. If you feel good about yourself, you'll be better able to resist being influenced by your friends.

It's a lesson that Tamika had already taught herself when she was first offered a joint in her neighborhood park. "I knew it was OK to say 'no'. If you're strong and smart, like I am, then you know you shouldn't do something that isn't right or illegal." And if her friends would ever get mad at her for not puffing away, then, she wisely points out, "they weren't really my friends in the first place."

Looking back on her smoky, hazy past, Rhianne says, "It took a while for me to realize that smoking pot is wrong. I know now that I don't need drugs to have fun. In fact, I am going to have more fun in my future without them."

Help and Information

If you want more information about marijuana or have a friend who you think has a pot problem, here are some organizations that can help you:

American Council for Drug Abuse

24-hour Hotline


Center for Substance Abuse

Treatment Information and Treatment

Referral Hotline


Narcotics Anonymous 818-773-9999