Tag Archives: marijuana

The Longtime Low From Living High

In cities and suburbs across the country, recreational marijuana shops are mushrooming in strip malls and commercial downtown districts.

An adult can walk into one of those stores and legally purchase several different varieties of marijuana and edibles such as cookies and brownies, all formulated to get the consumer high.

No harmless indulgence

“It’s a pursuit of pleasure that has nothing to do with God. It’s a purely hedonistic experience that one is searching for,” said Dr. Jeff Berger, the medical director for Guest House, a rehabilitation center in Michigan for priests who suffer from alcoholism and other addictions.

Berger, who is also a member of the Catholic Medical Association, has been treating addicts for 34 years. Marijuana, he warned, is not the harmless substance that pro-cannabis advocates have been claiming it is in their drive to legalize pot in the states.

“Seventeen percent of those who begin marijuana use in adolescence will become addicted to the drug,” Berger said. “And of those who are daily users, 25 to 50 percent of those will become addicted to the drug.”

Those statistics are backed by a 2014 study in The New England Journal of Medicine which also found evidence that frequent marijuana use is linked to cognitive impairment and an average IQ drop of about ten points.

“Interestingly enough, there is a diminished life satisfaction achievement,” Berger said. “People who were queried after several years of marijuana use are more likely to have dropped out of school, generally have lower incomes, and are more likely to be on welfare and unemployed.”

Steve Bozza, a moral theologian and bioethicist who serves as the director of Family Ministries for the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, said the research also indicates that marijuana, despite assertions to the contrary, does serve for many people as a gateway drug to harder narcotics such as heroin and cocaine.

“It’s not harmless,” said Bozza, who also recently co-authored an article with Berger on the morality of municipalities creating “safe injection sites” where addicts can obtain clean needles to shoot up heroin.

In recent years, at least 10 states, including the District of Columbia, have legalized recreational marijuana, while 33 states allow for medical marijuana.

 Under-realized dangers – health and moral

Pro-cannabis advocates, who are well-funded and well-organized, have used several arguments to convince state legislatures and voters in referendums to legalize recreational marijuana. In addition to arguing that prohibition has failed to stop people from smoking weed and has led to countless nonviolent offenders to be imprisoned, advocates say marijuana is a harmless drug that is no more dangerous than caffeine or alcohol.

Not true, said Berger and Bozza.

“You can use alcohol without becoming intoxicated,” Berger said. “But the whole purpose of using marijuana is to get intoxicated. That’s a critical difference.”

“The only reason why someone smokes marijuana is to get high,” Bozza added. “That changes the whole dynamic.”

There is no defined, specific Catholic teaching on cannabis. But Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Church documents condemn drunkenness and recreational drug use that impair the mind and body. The Catechism describes the use of drugs, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, as a grave offense (#2291)

With those principles in mind, the nation’s Catholic bishops have frequently spoken out against marijuana-related ballot measures in the states.

“When you’re high on drugs, you lose autonomy. You lose your ability to make proper decisions based on reason and freedom of choice. It puts you in slavery,” said Bozza, adding that smoking marijuana to get high is contrary to human dignity

“Therefore, we have moral issues with that,” Bozza said.

High potential for abuse, addiction

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with other drugs such as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. That classification indicates the federal government considers marijuana to have a high potential for abuse.

“If you’re smoking cannabis regularly, you’re likely to have withdrawals when you stop,” Berger said. “Some of the symptoms might be irritability, aggression, anger, restlessness, and insomnia. The more marijuana you’ve been smoking, the worse the withdrawal symptoms are going to be.”

While marijuana is composed of more than 80 chemical compounds, THC is the chemical that creates the euphoria, “the high,” while also at times inducing hallucinations and delusions. Berger said THC is the chemical in marijuana that causes addiction.

“When they think of marijuana, a lot of older people think of the pot from the 1960s and 1970s,” said Berger, who added that the marijuana of decades past had a THC level of about 4 percent. Marijuana today has a THC level around 30 percent.

“It is much more potent now,” Berger said.

That potency may explain the evidence of modern marijuana’s addictive quality. A 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 4.3 million Americans have “marijuana dependence.” Many of those respondents were adolescents

Other studies found that slightly more than a third of American high school seniors in 2013 reported using marijuana. The 2014 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that roughly 17 percent of teenagers who smoke pot regularly become addicted.

“The disease of addiction is deadly and produces significant suffering or death to the individual and the individual’s loved ones,” Berger said. “The studies are very clear that not only is marijuana addictive in and of itself, but desensitizes the brain to more harmful substances.”

On the medical front, marijuana contains a chemical known as cannabidiol, also known as CBD, that appears to have therapeutic qualities that can be used to treat a variety of maladies to include bipolar disorder and epilepsy, while also relieving nausea in chemotherapy patients.

However, Berger warned that the data on medical marijuana is still not yet complete.

 No FDA regulations

“If this were a drug being approved through the regular system, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would require some additional proof that the negative effects of regular marijuana use were not happening,” Berger said, adding that there are also concerns about how regular use of medical marijuana may affect pregnant women and their unborn children.

“With medical marijuana, there are no FDA regulations,” Berger said. “You don’t know how pure it is. You don’t know what the potency is. You don’t know whether pesticides were applied to it. You don’t know if anything else was added to it.”

Threshold of epidemic

Berger said the evidence also shows marijuana addiction is linked to higher risks of impaired short-term memory, difficulty retaining information, and impaired coordination that interferes with driving skills, which increases the risk of injury and death.

The push to legalize marijuana is occurring while hundreds of thousands of Americans across socioeconomic lines are overdosing and dying from opioids like heroin and fentanyl. Just as the national opioid crisis is ravaging communities across the country, Berger is concerned that another public health disaster is brewing.

“At this point,” Berger said, “We are at the beginning of an epidemic.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Marijuana – why bother going to pot?

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.

Kicking Pot To The Curb

Renowned Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. Vincent Fortanasce says marijuana use may lead to the disease

An estimated 200,000 people in the United States under age 65 are living with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And hundreds of thousands more are coping with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

“It’s beyond epidemic proportions. There truly is a tidal wave of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a clinical professor of neurology in Southern California who is also a renowned Catholic bioethicist, author and radio host.

Fortanasce, a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter, for several years has studied Alzheimer’s disease, its underlying causes and treatments. Through his research, he believes there may be a link between chronic use of marijuana — especially when started at a young age — and Alzheimer’s.

Finding the link

Fortanasce notes that medical research shows chronic users of marijuana, in particular the kind with high quantities of THC, have reduced volume in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In Alzheimer’s disease, Fortanasce said, medical researchers have also noticed reduced hippocampus volume with increased B-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.

Taking into account other factors, such as skyrocketing obesity rates and lack of exercise, Fortanasce argues that chronically smoking marijuana and consuming products laced with cannabis are harming the long-term mental health of millions of young Americans. He is trying to convince the American Academy of Neurology to conduct a major survey to see if people diagnosed with dementia have also smoked marijuana.

“And if we find out — especially for people under 65 — that 50% of them were smoking pot, that’s a huge indication that marijuana is responsible for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Fortanasce, who was a leading figure in the fight last year to defeat a California ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.

Voters in California chose to legalize recreational pot, as did their counterparts in several other states last November, raising the total number of states that permit recreational or medical marijuana to 28.

The marijuana lobby has been active in recent years in pushing ballot measures to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, or to legalize medical marijuana and fully recreational pot, which is now legal in eight states and the District of Columbia.

The Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that supports legalization, boasts on its website that it is “devoting significant resources” to ending marijuana prohibition in eight more states in 2017 — and that it’s lobbying and building coalitions across the country to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

Moral issue

In addition to the money and organizing efforts driving the legalization campaigns, Fortanasce said widespread ignorance has enabled the marijuana lobby to obfuscate the issue. While marijuana may have some medicinal properties (cannabidiol in pot, for example, can help decrease nausea and be used to treat seizures), Fortanasce noted that there are already medications on the market that are far more efficacious than marijuana.

“It takes the average drug about 10 years to get on the market — an anti-inflammatory, simple drugs like aspirin,” Fortanasce said. “You have 10 years of painstaking research, averaging $1 billion spent by pharmaceutical companies. Before they can give it to people, it’ll have to pass between three and five stages of scrutiny.”

“Marijuana has not had to go through any of these stages,” Fortanasce said, “and the question is why?”

Father Michael Orsi, who serves on the board of directors at St. Matthew’s House, which runs a drug recovery program in Naples, Fla., said the drug lobby has been successful because of wealthy donors and advertising that suggests that legalizing medical marijuana is a matter of compassion.

“It’s a real tragedy for society because it’s going to affect people who are using and not using marijuana — especially people who are going to be hurt while driving,” said Fr. Orsi. He last year spoke out against a medical marijuana ballot initiative in Florida. The initiative passed.

“The law is designed to legalize pot. Don’t let anyone be fooled that this is something done out of compassion,” said Fr. Orsi, who added that 99% of the clients in the St. Matthew’s House recovery program started smoking marijuana before becoming addicted to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.

“There is a moral issue involved with anything that’s harmful to human beings,” Fr. Orsi said.

Death and addiction

There is no defined, specific Catholic teaching on cannabis. But Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Church documents condemn drunkenness and recreational drug use that impair the mind and body. The Catechism describes the use of drugs, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, as a grave offense (#2291).

With those principles in mind, the nation’s Catholic bishops have frequently spoken out against marijuana-related ballot measures. In Massachusetts, where voters legalized recreational pot last November, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, held press events with elected officials and interfaith leaders to speak out against the initiative.

“There was real effort to get the word out, but unfortunately the voters didn’t go in that direction,” said James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

Driscoll highlighted several problematic aspects of marijuana legalization, noting that it is happening at the same time that a national opioid epidemic is ravaging communities across the country. He referenced scientific studies indicating marijuana use hampers brain development in youth and can be traced to increased rates of school dropouts and highway deaths in states like Colorado that have legalized recreational pot in recent years.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Driscoll said.

Fortanasce agrees with Driscoll, adding that marijuana promotes isolation and a decrease in socialization, making its users more apathetic and distracted. Noting the brain chemistry involved, Fortanasce also argues there is a direct association with the use of marijuana, pornography and violent video games.

“In marijuana the fear centers of the brain, the anxiety centers, are built up, while the cognitive center, the hippocampus, loses 20% of its volume,” Fortanasce said. “Therefore the sense of morality and self-control, motivation, is lost, as is what we call executive functioning, the ability to follow through. That is, you find these kids who are into marijuana aren’t very motivated.”

Arguing that the brains of chronic marijuana users resemble those of Alzheimer’s patients, Fortanasce believes heavy drug use could bring about “a perfect storm” for Alzheimer’s disease when combined with poor diet and other factors. He added that drug use can also hasten the onset of mental illness — or intensify it. And schizophrenia is a well-known example.

“Cannabis has not been clinically studied to the extent that is needed before approving its use in the general population,” Fortanasce explained. “The bottom line: Marijuana is dangerous. It’s not candy.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

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