On Thursday, Carbondale Middle School hosted “Marijuana and the Teenage Brain,” a panel discussion about the risks of youth cannabis consumption.
The event was put together by YouthZone, the True Media Foundation, and Roaring Fork Leadership and was broadcast live to Glenwood Springs High School and Rifle High School by BE HEARD, a web-based youth media program of the True Media Foundation. Remote participants were able to submit questions to be read in Carbondale.
YouthZone staged a similar event two years ago, prior to the passage of Colorado Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use by adults over 21 years old. At the time, the proliferation of medical marijuana since 2000 had sparked concerns that more teens might partake due to cannabis’ availability and increased social acceptability.
With four recreational dispensaries already in business in the Roaring Fork Valley and another on the way, the panel touched on many of the same issues.
The panel was moderated by Lori Mueller, executive director for YouthZone, and Felix Jimenez, Glenwood Springs High School student and YouthZone board member.
YouthZone provides counseling, prevention and mentoring programs for youth, and works with juvenile court referrals throughout Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley.
Participating panelists were Dr. Jonathan Birnkrant, Shelly Evans, Michael Zimmerman, Frankie Grundler, and James Leonard.
Birnkrant, a pediatrician and adolescent and adult psychiatrist, opened the discussion with an overview of the various parts of the brain affected by THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. His list included the hypothalamus (responsible for appetite and sexual behavior), hippocampus (which plays a role in memory), cerebellum (the motor control center), and the ventral striatum (a major reward center). According to Birnkrant, the negative effects of cannabis use have a greater impact on the still-developing teen brain.
“Just by using marijuana as an adolescent, you increase your risk as an adult of becoming either psychotic or schizophrenic,” he added, citing a study on the relationship between teen cannabis use and certain genetic predispositions.
Next up, Evans, executive director for the Community Health Initiative, described signs that a teen might be using: unusual items in the home, changes in spending habits, dilated pupils, a silver coated tongue, sleepiness, and emotional detachment.
She cautioned that “some of the signs and symptoms are often teenagers just doing what teenagers do.”
“Please be very careful before you accuse people of smoking pot,” she added, “Absolutely do not be judgmental. Do not be dramatic with kids, but be direct.”
Evans said her audience was the adults, not the kids.
“I don’t think this will do anything for adolescents,” she said of the event. “This will do something for parents.”
Grundler, co-founder of A New Path, an addiction recovery service in Carbondale, was more optimistic about student impact.
“This was never around when I was in school, we didn’t have this kind of education,” he recalled.
He spoke to his own difficulties overcoming addiction.
“I don’t have a lot of letters after my name. I’m coming from personal experience,” he said. “It was dormant inside of my body and something triggered it, and all the sudden I was an addict.”
Grundler thinks the seeds were there before. He never smoked in high school, but always sought to please those around him. He’s also witnessed similar self-destructive tendencies in others.
“In our society, there’s a lot of socially acceptable addictive behaviors,” he observed.
Asked how someone overcomes social pressures to smoke pot, Grundler turned the question back on Jimenez, who responded that, “You have to help kids find something that they’re more passionate about than pleasing the people around them.”
Zimmerman, Carbondale’s public school police resource officer, spoke to the prevalence of the problem.
“It’s out there. It’s real,” he said. “We’re seeing marijuana usage even in middle school age.”
He agreed with the need for better education.
“Generally, television and movies don’t show the adverse side of marijuana. The education hasn’t been out there. Even now, we’re still behind the ball.”
As for the legal consequences, it’s black and white.
“The bottom line is, you’re under the age of 21, it’s illegal. If I can see the physiological effects of it, you’re in possession. It is in your bloodstream.” He added that buying pot for a minor is also illegal.
“It’s a collective effort,” he said “Parents have to be involved from the beginning. Parents, please: If you are using the stuff, lock it up.”
Leonard, owner of “Doctor’s Garden”, was the target for several crowd questions. A RFHS graduate, he didn’t seemed fazed by being back in his old auditorium.
“I don’t think medical and legal recreational marijuana is the product that’s getting to the youth. I think an existing drug dealer is much more likely.”
Addressing concerns about the danger THC laced edibles, he said the higher concentration would probably just “make the signs of intoxication more obvious in teens.”
When another audience member cited recent deaths by people under the influence of marijuana, he replied, “There have not been a lot of cases of that happening. It would be interesting to see if that was the only factor.”
That’s not to say Leonard advocates teenage usage any more than the rest of the panel.
“Marijuana and teenagers do not mix,” he told the crowd. “Until you’re older, you should just avoid it.”