Rebekah (not her real name) was admitted into drug rehab, not her first time around the block. She was typical of over half the patients I saw that day, typical of any treatment center across the nation. The common denominator? Smoking marijuana was her first experience of intoxication.
Marijuana contains two major substances. One is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the substance responsible for the “high.” It causes most of the adverse effects of marijuana: elevated heart rate and blood pressure, distortions in time perception, anxiety, psychosis, and addiction. Along with alcohol and other potentially addicting substances, THC is a “false messenger,” signaling the brain that something wonderful has happened when, in fact, the only “wonderful thing” has been a fleeting experience of something much less than God. It is also a “virus,” taking control of the parts of the brain that process experience, plan, and strategize for the future. In vulnerable people, there follows a steady progression from pleasure or relief of suffering, to addiction.
The second major substance in marijuana is cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is responsible for many of the medicinal effects of marijuana such as: lowering of the blood pressure and heart rate, reductions in anxiety, anti-seizure effect, and protection from psychosis. (The FDA recently approved a pharmaceutical preparation of CBD (without THC) for use in some seizure disorders.) CBD is not part of the marijuana “high,” and does not produce addiction. In fact, CBD protects against many of the adverse effects of THC, possibly including addiction.
Time marches on and marijuana in the U.S. today is quite different than what was used by “flower children” of the past. Marijuana is now an $11 billion industry and, perhaps in response to industry pressures, the THC content of today’s marijuana has increased significantly. In 1995, THC content was approximately 4%. In 2014, THC content was approximately 14%, a more than three-fold increase from 1995. In contrast, from 1995 to 2014, the CBD content of marijuana decreased by more than 50%. This means marijuana today is a more potent psychoactive substance, containing less of the protective CBD. It’s a small wonder that emergency room visits due to marijuana increased by 50 percent between 2004 and 2011. Studies also show that adolescents using marijuana show impaired IQ, less satisfaction with life as adults, and 16 percent of them become addicted to it.
Rebekah’s childhood was long on suffering and short on supervision, important risk factors in developing addiction. In high school she experimented with alcohol and tobacco. Then came Xanax and concentrated marijuana (hash oil). By age 22, she was using cocaine and at age 23, heroin along with the cocaine. At age 24, Rebekah has survived (four people die every hour in the United States of a drug overdose) without a major health complication. She is hoping for long-term treatment, her best chance for recovery, and a brighter future. May God be with her.
DR. JEFFREY BERGER is the medical director of Guest House, the Residential Catholic Addiction Treatment Center in Lake Orion, MI. As well, he is contingent staff at Brighton Center for Recovery in Brighton, MI and has been practicing addiction medicine for over 30 years. He is an active member of the Catholic Medical Association.