Marijuana panel discusses impact of pot on the teen brain

Written February 24th, 2014

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

A roomful of parents, educators and teachers at Aspen High School on Thursday received plenty of information about how cannabis can negatively impact the adolescent brain.

It was the second forum for the Valley Marijuana Council, which Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo formed after the legalization of cannabis.

The council’s goal is to educate various sectors of the community about the new industry, including the multiple ways marijuana can be consumed and potential effects.

One of Thursday’s panelists was Dr. Jonathan Birnkrant, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who went over the parts of the brain that are impacted by ingesting cannabis.

In its natural state, the brain has cannabinoid receptors in areas like the neocortex and frontal lobe, which guide decision-making, he said.

“This doesn’t mean we have cannabis running around our brain,” Birnkrant said. “It means that we happen to have a molecule in our brain that cannabis attaches to.”

These parts of the brain are still developing until a person reaches their mid-20s. Marijuana use before that age can “interrupt the ability to make reasonable decisions,” Birnkrant said.

Sections of the brain like the hippocampus, which involves memory, can impact a student’s academic and social life, and worsen anxiety.

“It’s playing Russian roulette with your mind,” he said of teens using cannabis. “What used to give you joy no longer does.”

About 50 people attended the forum, including Aspen Middle School Principal Tom Heald and numerous coaches in the Aspen schools, County Commissioner Michael Owsley, and Erik Klanderud of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

In response to an audience member’s question, Michael Connolly of the Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention said a student survey from March 2013 shows that marijuana use is rising since the advent of medical marijuana.

Counselors, teachers, parents and kids “tell me it’s easier to get,” he said.

Every year that the use of marijuana is delayed in teens has a dramatic effect on their well-being, mentally and physically, Connolly said.

DiSalvo told the group that he was surprised how much parents have to learn about the ingestion methods of cannabis.

“It’s not smoking, it’s a lot more than that,” he said. “We want you guys to know what to look for when something flies out of your child’s knapsack.

“It’s not in pipes and joints anymore.”

Jordan Lewis, owner of Silverpeak Apothecary in Aspen and a member of the Valley Marijuana Council, displayed photos of bags of marijuana; powerful, infused oils for smoking and vaporizing; and various candies, cookies and brownies containing cannabis.

When he begins selling marijuana for recreational use, possibly early next month, such items will be in opaque, child-proof containers, he said.

Still, “I wish there were better products out there because I don’t like this,” he said of the candies.

DiSalvo agreed, saying he is worried about “lookalike products” and that the community may want to discuss whether it wants cannabis-infused gummy bears and lemon drops sold at all.

“It’s something we should start a dialogue about,” he said.

Retail marijuana sales are a new industry, and Lewis predicted that the methods for keeping such products out of children’s hands will improve.

“The industry is moving in a good direction,” he said.

When the discussion came to milligrams and amounts to eat, an audience member said children don’t care about such details.

DiSalvo said it is the responsibility of parents to keep their kids out of such situations.

“Tell them, ‘Forget the dosage, it’s not for you,’” he said.

He also reminded the audience that the vote to legalize cannabis passed overwhelmingly, and “it’s up to us to live with it responsibly.”

Original Aspen Daily News article here.