By Andrea Gottfried, Pelham Together Executive Board President
On Thursday evening, March 7, nearly 60 parents, school administrators, mental health professionals and a few high school students gathered at The Manor Club in Pelham, NY to discuss the effects of marijuana on the teenage brain. It is a timely topic, as New York is soon likely to become the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana.
“The landscape has drastically changed when it comes to marijuana use over the past few years,” said Laura Caruso, Executive Director of Pelham Together, the youth advocacy organization co-hosting the event. “We wanted to bring the community together to share most recent data, clinical realities, and parenting strategies as New York State wrestles with legalization.”
The informative conversation was led by Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz, a psychiatrist at Silver Hill, a nationally recognized hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut focused on treating adolescent and adult psychiatric and addiction disorders. Peggy O’Leary, a well-known Pelham parent and former member of the Board of Education, shared her family’s personal experience with addiction. The evening ended with a lively Q and A session and some important takeaways for Pelham parents.
While not yet legal, marijuana is widely available and widely accessible to teens, said Dr. Ortiz-Schwartz. “By the time they graduate, 44 percent of high school kids have tried marijuana.”
She emphasized that marijuana is significantly more potent than it was decades ago.
“THC, the primary component in cannabis, is much more concentrated.”
The methods of use have also changed. Among teens, joints and bongs are mostly a thing of the past.
“They are inhaling with vape pens or ingesting edibles like gum, gummies, topicals, and crystals that are almost pure THC,” said Dr. Ortiz-Schwartz. “The variety is incredible and they are much harder to detect…kids are using in bathrooms at schools and routinely in their dorms in boarding schools.”
The worst cases of addiction Dr. Ortiz-Schwartz sees are from “kids who are dabbing.” Patients often come to her once using leads to a total breakdown in functioning. Usually, they are failing school, crippled by anxiety or “physically unable to pick themselves up off the couch.”
When she assesses her patients to determine the severity of their addiction, she looks for symptoms of withdrawal, which tend to be severe considering the toxic levels of THC most of her patients are ingesting or inhaling.
“Kids who are using up to six times a day, alone and during school are super high-risk,” she said. Often, they are using whatever is available, which frequently means “poor quality or synthetic marijuana, which can be laced with formaldehyde, heroin, PCP, and even fentanyl.”
This has serious effects on their mood and sleep, and often exacerbates any underlying mental health issues.
“Patients with untreated ADHD say that marijuana helps them stay calm and focused,” says Dr. Ortiz-Schwartz. But self-medication for mental health issues rarely occurs on its own.
“They almost always start using socially; self-medication is secondary.”
She also warned that marijuana use, while not a cause of schizophrenia, can activate the disorder in teens with a pre-existing vulnerability.
“When patients have a ‘bad trip’ and experience hallucinations or paranoia while using marijuana,” said Dr. Ortiz-Schwartz, she becomes concerned that they will develop even worse schizophrenia. Once those neural pathways have been opened, the disorder can continue without drugs. “For these patients, I recommend complete abstinence rather than the more typical ‘harmful reduction’ approach.”
Adolescents with mental health issues like ADHD and bi-polar disorder, and those with obsessive or impulsive personalities are more likely to become addicted, said Dr. Ortiz-Schwartz. But all teens need to understand the risks associated with marijuana use. The human brain, particularly the frontal lobe responsible for judgment, time management, working memory and executive functioning, is at a critical stage of development during adolescence — and marijuana interferes with this process.
“You have to wait till your brain is fully developed,” she tells her teenage patients. In addition to the shorter-term effects, including impaired judgment, coordination, retention and reaction times, “teens are permanently impairing their brain development.”
Peggy O’Leary, who raised two children in Pelham, shared her family’s personal story. She began by reading a poem written by her son, who struggled with marijuana addiction in high school and college, and is still dealing with the lasting physical and mental effects of drug use.
Like most teens, “he started using marijuana to fit in socially,” said O’Leary. And he exhibited the classic early warning signs of addiction, including mood swings, academic deterioration, a sudden shift in his group of friends (dropping his lifetime buddies), spending lots of money.
“Pelham parents want to believe that their children are buying drugs in the Bronx — but it is harder to accept the reality, that their peers are their suppliers,” warned O’Leary.
After dropping out of college, hospitalization and ongoing treatment, her son, now 25, is able to reflect back on his mistakes and the harm he caused those who love him. But back when he was using marijuana, he was “completely unable to discern between right and wrong.”
By courageously sharing her story, O’Leary set the tone for an open conversation about what Pelham parents can do to raise awareness about the dangers of teen marijuana use. Pelham Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ, who was in the audience along with several colleagues, spoke about her administration’s multi-pronged approach to addressing this issue.
“We are partnering with Pelham Together and using all of our resources so that we can get ahead of this issue, said Dr. Champ. “We’ve increased consequences for using in school, we are referring students caught using to counseling, and we are bringing in several outside speakers to educate students and parents alike.”
Survey results both in Pelham and nationally show that there are many misconceptions among teens about marijuana being harmless. States legalizing the drug for medicinal and recreational purposes only makes matters worse.
Parents can help change this by speaking to their children early and often about the negative, long-term effects of marijuana on the developing teenage brain. They can also educate themselves about early warning signs and the latest (often undetectable) methods of use. There are helpful articles, videos, reading lists, and local mental health resources listed on www.pelhamtogether.org.