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Legal marijuana in Virginia?

First slide

It’s about time for this stupid drug war to be over, thought Ben Cort. That was his first reaction when he heard Colorado was going to legalize marijuana. But then a friend urged him to actually read the legislation, and what he saw frightened him. 

“It was nuts,” he said. “(I thought), this is really scary and this is going to do bad things to the addicts of the world.” 

“When you go through all of these adverse effects, you sort of ask yourself, what kind of country do we want? Do we really need another hallucinogen, is that the answer for our country’s issues?” Dr. James Avery

Before the start of Virginia’s 2021 legislative session, Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician, announced his support for legalizing marijuana in the commonwealth. Last year, possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized. Right now, legislation making marijuana legal for people 21 and older is going through the Senate. On behalf of the Virginia bishops, the Virginia Catholic Conference is opposing the legislation.

Many Virginians are concerned about marijuana legalization, or as Cort prefers to call it, commercialization. “What most people don’t understand is it’s not a group of benevolent lawmakers sitting around deciding what’s best for public health,” he said. “It’s lobbyists for the weed industry trying to figure out how they can make the most money for their clients. 

“The thing that freaked me out the most (about Colorado) was this wasn’t about decriminalization and it definitely wasn’t about individual rights,” he said. “It was purely about creating another commercial industry for a vice substance.” 

Marijuana 101

For many years, Dr. James Avery didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about marijuana. “I tended to be almost ‘laissez-faire’ when patients told me they were using it,” said Avery, a visiting assistant professor of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But after learning more about marijuana’s harmful effects, he was stunned. He then wrote the book “Marijuana: An Honest Look at the World’s Most Misunderstood Weed.” “I think (there’s) a huge gap between the public’s perception and the actual medical data,” he said.

Most people know that marijuana is a plant that when smoked or consumed gets the user high. It contains numerous chemical compounds, the most well-known being CBD and THC. While CBD is marketed as medicinal in many products, the FDA has approved only one CBD product — a prescription drug used to treat two rare, severe forms of epilepsy. CBD doesn’t produce a high. That comes from THC — the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

The amount of THC in marijuana and marijuana products has grown steadily in recent years. “The marijuana of the 1960s is a totally different animal than the marijuana we’re seeing now,” said Avery. “THC levels were less than five percent in the 1960s. But now we’re seeing 30 percent THC and much, much higher in things like gummy bears and (other) infused foods.” 

Young minds are particularly impacted by the drug. Lorenzo Resendez, a counselor with the diocesan Catholic Charities Family Services Program, sees firsthand with his clients the mood swings, depression, anger issues and family strain marijuana use can cause. “Marijuana has chemicals that target specific aspects of brain development,” he said. “In a lot of cases (it) will actually halt development in certain areas of the brain, especially the higher functioning aspects of the brain, (such as) decision-making skills and the ability to be able to tell right from wrong,” he said. 

Avery has seen studies that estimate one in six teens and one in 11 adults who use marijuana will develop a diagnosable substance use disorder. Some experience psychosis or suicidal ideation. “When you go through all of these adverse effects, you sort of ask yourself, what kind of country do we want?” asked Avery. “Do we really need another hallucinogen, is that the answer for our country’s issues?”

When things go wrong

As medical director of the Pennsylvania campus of Caron Treatment Centers, Dr. Dean Drosnes helps treat the many people who develop a substance use disorder, including those who have a problem with marijuana. “For our adolescent population, the No. 1 reason they come is cannabis,” said Drosnes. 

Cannabis users may face a number of problems, but the most severe is psychosis, said Drosnes. “Psychosis is, in layman’s terms, a break with reality. That happens, not rarely, to people who are daily cannabis users,” he said. “There's a certain fraction of people that will get better when they stop using marijuana. And there’s another fraction that won’t get better and they’ll stay psychotic and they’ll become schizophrenic. It’s very, very sad.”

Rick, whose last name is withheld due to the sensitive nature of the topic, is a 59-year-old father from Reston whose two sons became addicted to marijuana. One experienced psychotic episodes while using marijuana, but the other did not. His younger son, Daniel, whose name has been changed due to the sensitive nature of the topic, was a varsity baseball player when he began heavily using marijuana. “It did, in my opinion, cause him to not even try out for the baseball team his senior year,” said Rick. He believes his son probably drove under the influence of marijuana every day in high school. 

Daniel was accepted to Virginia Tech, but never made it there. “His probation officer said you either have to go to jail or to rehab,” said Rick. Daniel considered running, but ultimately decided on rehab. “That was a very harrowing 24 hours” waiting for Daniel to decide, said his father. “One of many.”

Daniel attended a six-week program in Florida, then lived in a sober-living home there before moving back to Virginia. Then he relapsed and was involved in a hit-and-run DUI, where, fortunately, no one was hurt. 

He went to rehab again, this time in Maryland. Rick learned through the experience that not everyone considers marijuana a seriously harmful addictive substance. “Both rehab places, they were pretty interrogative to see if he had an alcohol problem because that was more acceptable to the insurance company,” said Rick. “If it was just marijuana, both the (facilities) said the insurance would not cover it.”

For the past few years, Daniel has been living in the Towson area and to Rick’s knowledge, has been off drugs all that time. 

His older son Luke began using marijuana heavily in college. He graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in statistics and started a graduate degree program in the Midwest. That’s when the serious problems began. “He did start using more highly concentrated types of marijuana called dabs,” said Rick. “I believe that’s when he started having some of those psychotic episodes, but at the time we just thought it was some sort of mental illness.”

Then the worst happened — Luke attempted suicide. His parents flew out immediately and convinced him to come home and seek help. He stayed in a psychiatric institution in Washington for a couple of weeks, then another in Houston. “It was a well-respected, nationally renowned facility. Extremely expensive, but we thought it's probably worth it and we’ll hopefully get some insurance coverage,” said Rick. “He had a total of 281 days (at the facility or doing the day program). Insurance covered five. If I was going to rely on the health insurance, on their decision, I'm not sure my son would be alive.”

After leaving the facility, Luke relapsed several times, often having psychotic episodes. He would hear voices and was convinced people from the government were watching him. “The last slip did kind of scare him because he also got pretty angry and a little bit violent and I don't think that has ever occurred with him before. He’s a very mild-mannered person,” said Rick. 

For the last couple of months, Luke mostly has been clean and is working as a data analyst. But his father still worries. “I don’t think his brain is the same as it was,” he said. “I don’t think it's fully recovered.”

The view from Colorado

In the mountains of Colorado is a small men’s chemical dependency treatment program primarily serving blue collar workers. Cort is CEO. Every week, he sees men addicted to marijuana, men going into withdrawal from marijuana and men experiencing cannabis-induced psychosis. 

His own experience as well as statewide trends have shown that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado hasn’t improved the health of its population. “From 2014 — when we opened commercial sales — until now, every single year has broken the previous year’s record of overdoses (for all substances),” said Cort. “And we know that high-potency weed primes opiate receptors; we know that on a large scale it tends to lead to quite a bit more use and abuse of other substances.” 

Recent years also have been more deadly for teens. “Colorado the last five years running has broken every record of the previous year for the highest teen suicide rates. I am not saying it’s causal,” he said. “But I’m saying the correlation is significant enough that everybody else should be pumping the brakes until we determine causality.”

The legalization hasn’t stopped drug dealing, either. Though legal weed dispensaries abound, so do cheaper black-market sales. “It’s grown like crazy, there’s more than enough data on that,” said Cort. “You can take 20 percent right off the top of everything if you buy it (on the) black market, and there’s no disadvantage because nobody’s ever getting caught or in trouble.” 

Even with these significant issues, marijuana still is considered harmless by many, which makes it more difficult for addicts to admit they have a problem. If you confess you struggle with alcohol or opiates, everyone around you is going to rally, said Cort. 

“(Cannabis addicts are) going to get belittled for what they’re going through from everyone around them because this narrative has been perpetuated that you can't die from it, you can’t get addicted to it,” said Cort. “And all of this (messaging) is from the people who brought you commercial sales. We are taking the people who are profiting from that addiction at their word.”

Dangers of commercialization

Marguerite was 13 or 14 years old when she first smoked marijuana. Eventually, she was using it every day, and using more concentrated forms of the drug such as edibles and vape. “I didn’t think it was a problem because there were so many people who did it the same way that I did,” said the 22-year-old Arlingtonian, whose last name has been withheld due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “I honestly (thought), this can’t harm me. Friends who were using at the time (told me), oh no, it doesn’t do anything, all that happens is that you get hungry.” 

But her parents became concerned, and after she graduated from high school, they gave her an ultimatum. “They offered me rehab or no financial support,” she said. “Back then I was like, that is so cruel, but that really was the best thing to do.” 

Marguerite described her time at rehab as an amazing learning experience. “I didn't know anything about addiction, my family didn’t know anything about addiction,” she said. “I definitely got to a point where it was like, if I’m not smoking then I don’t feel like a normal human being. Thankfully today, four years later, I feel like a normal human being without drugs and alcohol.”

Marijuana legalization concerns Marguerite because she knows how easy it was for her to get marijuana when it was illegal. “The reason I smoked weed was because it was somewhat accessible to me because I knew people older than me,” she said. “I worry younger people are going to do it more often.”

It’s very hard to convince young people that marijuana can be bad for them, said counselor Resendez. “They’ll say it’s natural, that everybody is smoking. With the younger generation, probably 25 and younger, it tends to be very difficult to convince them that there are harmful effects,” said Resendez. “You have to have the same conversation multiple times over a long period of time to be able to help them understand that this is an actual fact.”

If marijuana is legalized, Resendez doesn't know if there will be enough mental health services available to meet the increased need. “This area tends to have a pretty good system for addiction response or mental health but as we’ve seen in other states that have legalized this, even Colorado has a very strong mental health system and it (had) an overwhelming impact on them,” he said. “I don't know if we’ll be 100 percent ready to deal with that.” 

In the meantime, Resendez encourages those struggling with cannabis use to seek help. “If they do struggle, if they have someone in their family that struggles, they’re not alone. Whether it’s Catholic Charities or other mental health (professionals), we’d be more than willing to help,” he said. “There is hope.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021