Much of the latest brain development science conducted around the world shares this bottom line: Adolescent substance use is harmful and a bigger deal than researchers previously thought.
“Parents don’t have to accept teen drug use or the notion that drug use is just a part of growing up,” said Dr. Christian Thurstone, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado, who also serves as medical director of one of Colorado’s largest adolescent substance abuse treatment programs.
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Thurstone said many companies selling addictive drugs — including alcohol, marijuana and tobacco — are staffed with executives and researchers who know what he does about the science: The best way to develop the lifelong customers who guarantee business survival and boost profits is to hook people when they are young because that is when the brain is especially vulnerable to developing addiction. Most adults who struggle with addiction started their drug use as adolescents, he said.
Consider internal statements — publicized during the country’s tobacco lawsuit settlements — that informed tobacco companies’ advertising and business-development efforts:
• From Lorillard in 1970: “We have been asked by our client group to come up with a package design … a design that is attractive to kids … While this cigarette is geared to the youth market, no attempt (obvious) can be made to encourage persons under 21 to smoke. The package design should be geared to attract the youthful eye … not the ever watchful eye of the federal government.”
• From R.J. Reynolds in 1973: “Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper, over the long term we must get our share of the youth market.”
• From Brown & Williamson in 1980: “The studies … of young smokers’ attitudes towards ‘addiction’ … contain multiple references to how very young smokers at first believe they cannot become addicted, only to later discover, to their regret, that they are.”
Companies offer the drug in familiar candy shapes and bright colors, promoted using fashion labels, media and events popular with youths. In doing so, they follow Big Tobacco’s playbook, said Bob Doyle, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance.
“Marijuana is shaping up to be Big Tobacco 2.0,” Doyle said. “Only this time, the consequences stand to be even worse.”
Among the findings about pot use during adolescence:
• Heavy use of the drug starting in adolescence predicts up to an 8-point drop in IQ from age 13 to age 38, according to research published in 2012 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study findings suggest the drop in IQ is permanent and dose-dependent — meaning the more marijuana used, the greater the drop in IQ.
• Adolescent exposure to marijuana doubles the risk of developing psychosis in adulthood — which includes seeing and hearing things that aren’t there and maintaining fixed, false beliefs not shared by the larger community, according to research published in Lancet in 2009. This finding first was reported in 1988 and has been replicated at least five times with studies controlling for dozens of possible, confounding variables — and all yielding similar results.
• Adolescent exposure to marijuana predicts a doubling in the odds of having an anxiety disorder in adulthood, according to research published in 2013 in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction.
• Adolescents who use marijuana are at least twice as likely to go on to use other substances, compared with those who do not use the drug, according to research published in Addiction.
Science has shown for many years that the brain achieves its maximum size and weight at about age 6. What researchers didn’t know until the start of the 21st century is that the brain fully matures around the age of 25.
During adolescence, the brain changes rapidly. While under this important construction, it is especially vulnerable to harm from substance use, said Thurstone, who directs the medical training of physicians completing fellowships in addiction psychiatry at CU. To underscore how easily teens become addicted to substances, he provides a quick rundown of peer-reviewed research published in respected medical journals:
• One in six people younger than 18 who try marijuana becomes addicted to it — compared with one in 11 adults. These rates were calculated decades ago, when marijuana was much less potent.
It’s the sequence of brain development that makes adolescents more vulnerable to addiction than adults. The reward circuit matures in early adolescence. But the part of the brain that helps us plan, organize and contemplate consequences develops in the mid-20s.
“So for about 12 years, kids are biologically off to the races with fully functioning gas pedals and no brakes,” Thurstone said. “The imbalance could be a good thing if it encourages teens and young adults to take some risks — such as leaving home and finding a mate — but it presents big challenges that should underscore for all of us that adolescents are not merely little adults and that the ages of 18 and 21 aren’t somehow going to make drug use all right.”