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As marijuana laws change, more teens think drugs are safe

Utah police, addiction experts fear shift in attitudes


SALT LAKE CITY — New marijuana laws and cultural opinion changes are affecting the attitudes of America's youth — something local addiction experts and police say is a dangerous trend.

"Right now, what we're really seeing is marijuana and spice, it's just huge in the high schools," said Salt Lake police officer Doug Teerlink, who has 14 years of experience in the department and is currently assigned as a school resource officer.

"You talk to the kids and with everything that's going on with it being legalized in Colorado and comments being made that it's just not that bad for you, the kids are taking it one step further and they're telling me, 'It's just an herb. It's OK. In fact, it's used for medical purposes, it's not bad for you. It's good for you.'

"And that's the belief that our kids are getting," he said.

That puts youth at risk at a time when they are still undergoing critical brain development.

Less disapproval

After a decade of declining marijuana use among juveniles, smoking pot has been on the rise since the mid-to-late 2000s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Monitoring the Future Survey, which interviewed eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders about drug use.

"Young people are showing less disapproval of marijuana use and decreased perception that marijuana is dangerous," the Institute said. "The growing perception of marijuana as a safe drug may reflect recent public discussions over medical marijuana and movements to legalize the drug for adult recreational use in some states."

Colorado and Washington state recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana and 20 other states plus the District of Columbia now allow marijuana use for medical reasons.

The 2013 survey indicates that just 39.5 percent of high school seniors view regular marijuana use as harmful. That's down from 2012’s rate of 44.1 percent, and considerably lower than rates from the past two decades.

The Monitoring the Future Survey found that 22.7 percent of 12th-graders had smoked marijuana at least once in the past month, up from 19.4 percent in 2008. The study also found that 6.5 percent of high school seniors used weed on a daily basis compared to 5 percent in the mid-2000s and 2.4 percent in 1993.

"Marijuana use in our high schools is always a pretty significant issue. It's the most frequently used drug among kids under 18 in Utah — even over alcohol," said Christina Zidow, chief operating officer of Odyssey House of Utah, a non-profit substance abuse treatment facility.

"It's incredibly easy to access marijuana in the school. Most of the kids in high school could find marijuana in a couple of hours if they wanted to."

While Zidow doesn't advocate marijuana use at any age, she said there's a big difference between adults smoking pot and minors.

"They're not legalizing it for kids anywhere," she said. "And even though in some places it's legal, it doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you or healthy for you."

Utah teens

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, who regularly speaks throughout the city on crime, has seen the shift in attitudes. He said many of the high school students he's talked with don't distinguish between medical use of marijuana and recreational use.

"(They say) it's just legal, and so everyone can smoke it. And if everyone is legalizing it (and Utah isn't), it's just because we're a prudish state and so it must be OK," he said.

A handful of Salt Lake high schoolers who spoke to the Deseret News Friday all said they are aware of marijuana use among fellow students, although some said they haven't seen a dramatic increase.

“It’s definitely really prevalent,” said East High junior Jake Kimball, who described marijuana usage as "trendy." “I feel like at some point in anyone’s high school career that they’ve encountered it, definitely — especially in this day and age.”

“People definitely come to school high,” Jacob Adamson, another East High student, said. “That’s definitely a thing.”

Senior Brandon Reemsnyder said marijuana has been “a big thing” at Judge High School since he was a freshman. “I know groups that I could go to that they would refer me,” if he wanted to get marijuana, he said.

“It’s sort of just in the background,” added student Keegan Dohm. “It’s not worse than it ever has been, but it’s always been there.”

“We do drug testing and stuff here,” said Judge High School senior Sean McMinimee. “So that acts as like a huge deterrent for almost everybody in the school.”

The Utah State Health Department recently released results of its 2013 Prevention Needs Assessment Survey for Salt Lake County. The survey questioned students in the sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades in 39 districts and 14 charter schools to measure drug and alcohol usage and other anti-social behaviors.

The survey found that while the percentage of 10th-grade students using alcohol dropped in 2013 from a 2011 survey, it increased for marijuana use. The overall percentage of those who had used alcohol during their lifetime was still greater than those who had used marijuana. But the percentage of 10th-graders who admitted using marijuana at least once in the past 30 days surpassed those who drank alcohol.

For 12th-graders, the percentage of those using marijuana at least once over the past 30 days stayed relatively the same, according to the survey.

Statewide, the survey found that the percentage of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders who admitted using marijuana at least once over the past 30 days had increased since 2011, while the use of alcohol during that time declined. The percentage of eighth- and 10th-graders who admitted smoking marijuana at least once in their lifetime also increased statewide from 2011 to 2013. But the number of 12th-graders smoking marijuana took a sharp drop.

Nationwide, 36.4 pecent of 12th-graders said they used marijuana during the previous year, according to a 2013 study by the University of Michigan reprinted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Interestingly, the Institute also reported that alcohol use among teens remained at "historically low levels," and cigarette use had also dropped.

Teen justification

The problem with high school students who smoke marijuana, Zidow said, is they don't believe it will adversely affect them.

"I think with teenagers there's always that issue of ... 'something bad is not going happen to me.' There's the magical thinking that just comes with that developmental stage," she said. "And then there's a lot of justification around different drugs: 'Oh, marijuana is natural, it's a dried plant. And now that it's being legalized in other places, it must not be that bad for you if they're letting everyone in Colorado smoke it.'"

But what teens don't realize, Zidow said, is they're still developing.

"There's some pretty critical developmental periods for brain growth and development and adolescence happens to be one of them. So whenever you're interrupting that developmental process or delaying that developmental process with substance use of any kind, you see developmental delays. And that can be psycho-emotional delays, educational delays that are tacked on to memory and development and higher level development and that kind of thing," she said.

Most of the patients who receive treatment at Odyssey House started using drugs when they were in their teens, Zidow said, and practically all of them have smoked marijuana at some point.

"The earlier you start using, the more likely you are to: 1) become addicted. And 2) require significant periods of treatment later in life," she said.

Burbank said he doesn't want marijuana to become a drug that, like alcohol, becomes socially acceptable once a teenager becomes an adult.

"Where do you draw the line? If you're under 18 you can't use it? If you're over 18 it's OK? If you're a cop, if you're a pirate, if you're a doctor?" He asked. How many hours before you begin work can you use it?

"I mean, if you're a cop, do you say, 'We think you can smoke a joint two hours before you come on shift and then decide whether or not you're going to shoot somebody?' So as you play this out long term, it becomes ridiculous and very unmanageable and very risky the message we're sending to young people," the chief said.

"Even if marijuana were legal, I would not want my kids using it. Nor would I use it," Burbank said.

Deterring use

The key to deterring marijuana use among teens, experts say, is for parents to have frank talks with their children.

"It's not the school's responsibility, it's not the state's, it's the parents' responsibility to educate their kids about things. And we don't do a good job talking to kids. You need to be honest. You need to tell them what it does," Burbank said.

He also encouraged parents to be honest with their children, whether they're talking about marijuana, Oxycontin, alcohol or even steroids. The fact is, these drugs all do what one would expect, Burbank said. But what juveniles have to understand are the side-effects and consequences that come with their use.

"Whether it's legal or not, you still get to make that choice. A decision to violate the law in order to obtain a legal substance — whether it's pills, alcohol or anything else — is still a conscious choice you get to make. And if that's what you choose to lead your life, you just need to know the risk associated with it. And if you go into that decision thinking there's no risk, then that's a foolish decision," he said.

"We need to counteract that as much as we can with parents talking to their kids and with teachers talking to the students," Teerlink added. "And we as police officers, anytime we can talk to the kids and say, 'Hey, whatever you're hearing, whatever you think you're hearing, this is not good for you. This has potential to destroy your future.'"

Other drugs

Both Burbank and Zidow also fear the use of marijuana leads to other drugs. For example, when a person is sober, they might not take an unprescribed Oxycontin pill.

"But then when you're high on pot, doing Oxy sounds like a good option," Zidow said.

Other juveniles get hooked on prescription pills because they see their parents use them.

"In our community we have a lot of strong messaging about smoking," she said. Teens might think: "'But my mom has this leftover Percocet when she had surgery this year,' and the process of taking a pill seems to be a lot more socially acceptable."

The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported in its January newsletter that prescription medications remain a "significant part of the teen drug problem."

Having an addiction to Oxycontin often leads to a heroin addiction, primarily because of the cost. For example, Burbank said a single Oxycontin pill can sell for about $80 on the street, whereas a balloon of heroin sells for $10.

But with heroin, "the high comes faster and harder," Zidow said. It can often lead to tragic, or even fatal consequences, as was evident with the heroin-induced death last week of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Another reason Burbank believes marijuana usage shouldn't be supported is because it primarily comes from Mexican drug cartels, even when it's grown in Utah.

"The notion that a few nice people are growing it in the backyard and giving it to people, that's bull," he said. "Grows in southern Utah are pushed by the cartels south of the border to bring more marijuana in to meet the demand of these states."

Furthermore, Burbank said when people buy marijuana, there's no guarantee on quality control. And he doubts it can be properly regulated.

"The absolute most controlled substance in the world is prescription medication. And look how that's abused, especially in our state," he said. "We're just naive to think we can bring this in and we can control it, we can make money, we can tax it, same thing with alcohol. How many Utahns drive across the border to Nevada or Wyoming to purchase alcohol because it's so much cheaper?"

And while synthetic drugs such as Spice aren't reaching dangerous levels, local authorities and national experts say the substances are "cause for concern" and their usage needs to be monitored.

Contributing: Emilee Eagar

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