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Colorado Prepares for Marijuana Addicted Teens

Treatment centers expect to see increasing numbers of people seeking treatment for pot addiction.

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By Allison McCabe

01/07/14

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While many in Colorado spent the first day of 2014 celebrating recreational marijuana’s newly legal status, Dr. Christian Thurstone, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado and the head of teen rehab center Adolescent STEP: Substance Abuse Treatment Education & Prevention Program, was preparing for an influx of new patients. When the law passed in November, Thurstone started increasing his staff. Now he has double the employees that he had prior to November, and his facility still has a waiting list.

Although the purchase of marijuana is restricted to people 21 and over, Thurstone and other psychiatrists are worried that the new law will make more potent marijuana even more widely available to teenagers than it has been since the legalization of medical marijuana in 2009. After the law passed in 2009, teenagers reported that they were using “much higher potency products,” according to Thurstone, such as solid forms which had up to 50 or 60 percent of THC, the major psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of marijuana as well as to addiction, according to Thurstone. After consuming the higher potency marijuana, some teens have had psychotic episodes or breakdowns. “Anecdotally, yes, we’re seeing kids in treatment here who have paranoia and seeing things and hearing things that aren’t there,” Thurstone said. “Adolescent exposure to marijuana [raises] risk of permanent psychosis in adulthood.”

Additionally, teens who suffer from mental illness may experience breaks with reality after using the highly potent form of the drug, according to Ben Court, an addictions expert at the University of Colorado Hospital Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR). “For the person on shaky ground, you add this to the equation and it’s gas on the fire,” he said. According to Thurstone, 80 percent of teens in substance abuse treatment also suffer from underlying mental illness.

Ben Court believes that if a young person consistently uses marijuana, he is more likely to become addicted than if he had started later in life. “Most people are going to smoke weed and it’s not going to be an issue. By 18 to 24, your odds are less than 1 in 10 that you’re going to be addicted,” Court said. “If you start under 18, it’s 1 in 6.” Thurstone has treated children as young as 11 for addiction to marijuana.

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