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Addiction ministry tackles the changing world of marijuana

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This is not your father’s marijuana, Tom Walker, a substance abuse counselor and former drug addict, told the crowd. In fact, Walker hesitates to call most of the cannabis products ingested today marijuana at all. He prefers instead to call it THC — the component of the marijuana plant that provides a high. 

Much of the marijuana landscape has changed since the halcyon hippie days — its chemical makeup, the ways it’s ingested, its legal status and even how taboo it is. 

The St. John Neumann Recovery and Addiction Ministry recently hosted a talk at the Reston church to inform teens, parents and other concerned people what has changed and how they can help people at risk for dependence on the drug.

Walker, CEO of Encore Recovery Solutions in Arlington, began his presentation describing the evolution of marijuana. Only .5 percent of THC occurs naturally in the marijuana plant, but since the 1960s, the amount has skyrocketed. “Good gardening brought that up to 5, 10, 12 percent and good chemistry brought it all the way up to 40,” said Walker. 

Just as the content of marijuana has changed, so has how it’s consumed. Cannabis is looking less like a plant and more like something manufactured in a laboratory, said Walker. One new way to ingest cannabis is vaping. As with nicotine vaping, the user puts cannabis oil in the vape, where it is then super-heated, vaporized and inhaled. 

“What we’re seeing in the vape pens: someone is walking around with something that can be concealed in a million different ways, they have a product in their pocket that is exponentially stronger than anything that used to be available, (and it) is colorless, odorless and otherwise undetectable,” said Walker. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration called vaping among teens an “epidemic.” 

While extremely convenient, there’s little research on whether vaping has long-term health consequences. Vaping THC may be particularly dangerous. In the wake of reports of severe lung injuries and deaths associated with the use of vaping products, the FDA has warned consumers not to vape any products containing THC.

Another trendy way to consume THC is through edibles. In places where pot is legal, such as Colorado, pretty much any snack can be bought infused with cannabis oil, said Walker. That includes gummy bears, candy bars and other sweets typically marketed to children. Introducing the product to young people is a key to the growing marijuana industry, said Walker. 

“It’s an industry that’s aimed at getting people started young on high potency substances and using them frequently,” he said. “The most important thing to understand about this is the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the product is being consumed by 20 percent of the individuals using it. When we’re talking about commercialization or the lobbying that is going on in this industry that’s growing up around cannabis, it’s really targeted at the 20 percent of the people (who) are going to have a problem with it, the heavy users.”

While marijuana is commonly thought to be harmless, studies show the drug has a negative impact on the developing adolescent brain. A 2014 Lancet study shows that using marijuana casually can increase the risk of psychosis threefold, and daily use can increase the risk fivefold. Other consequences include increased risk of depression and attempted suicide, and loss of IQ points. 

As a treatment provider, Walker often sees teens head off to college, start using pot more heavily and eventually get diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder with psychotic features. “The question is, does it go away (once they stop using marijuana)? And unfortunately, we don’t know,” he said. “In some cases, yes, in others no, and a lot of cases the young person doesn’t believe it was caused by the weed and they won’t stop.”  

The catechism teaches that “the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.” Pope Francis also has spoken out against drugs, especially the harm of narcotics and the evils of drug trafficking. 

Vaping cannabis oil is one way to ingest cannabis. ADOBESTOCK.COM

lr vapingg In a 2014 address to the Drug Enforcement Conference in Rome, the pope warned against drug legalization. “Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called 'recreational drugs,' are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects,” he said. “Here I would reaffirm what I have stated on another occasion: No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that.”

Unlike THC, there is a component of cannabis that has medicinal properties — CBD. Today’s marijuana products have almost no CBD, but even if they did, said Walker, “It has been centuries since we lit our medicine on fire and smoked it. If you’re doing that with medicine, you’re probably not using it appropriately.” While CBD is legal to buy in Virginia, Walker says there’s no pharmaceutical grade, so what you’re getting in CBD products isn’t always clear.

 Going forward, he hopes the potential healing power of CBD can be further explored without promoting the use of THC. “There’s a recent study that says that CBD has incredible antipsychotic effects with very low side effects.  There's a researcher from Penn State (who’s) doing a lot of research about how CBD is effective in treating chronic pain,” said Walker. “How do we make (cannabis) so that it’s available for real research so that the universities can actually do that work, but don’t allow it into the shops, into the hands of our youth, really into the hands of anyone?”

How to talk to your kids about marijuana

Tom Walker, CEO of Encore Recovery Solutions in Arlington, recommends that parents know the facts, talk early and not let fear dominate the conversation when speaking with their kids about marijuana. There’s a common perception that marijuana isn’t harmful, so be prepared to share how it can impact developing brains. When children are in middle school is a good time to equip them with the facts and let them know what you expect. 

Have a dialogue with your children at a time when they’ll be open to listening. “I think there’s a lot of value in having an honest conversation, regardless of whether you think it’s going to fall on deaf ears,” said Walker. “Don’t let it blow up, (don’t let) it get to that point where it becomes an argument.”

If you do find your son or daughter using marijuana or other drugs, set firm boundaries and consult with people who understand substance use disorder. “It’s probably appropriate to pull in a professional sooner than you think because what happens a lot is families wait until things are so bad that there’s no question as to whether they should go for help,” said Walker. “There’s no harm in an individual therapist having those conversations.”

Don’t be discouraged if the drug use persists. “Unfortunately, stopping the progression of a substance use disorder in the early stages is incredibly hard because the nature of it is that the adverse consequences haven’t gotten to a point where it’s going to change their behavior, especially when you’re young and you’re not thinking big picture,” he said. 

Find out more

To learn more about how the diocese is helping people with substance use disorder and their families, go here

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019