Today’s marijuana ‘a completely different drug’ and variants are here

A retired narcotics officer from Denver says other states should consider Colorado’s experience before legalizing marijuana.

“Let Denver be your crystal ball,” James Henning told local residents gathered for a Marijuana Town Hall meeting sponsored by the Lawrence County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition on March 24. A consultant who works with the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, Henning addresses topics including the impact of marijuana legalization and the drug’s impact on the adolescent brain.

Most people think “it’s just weed,” and that’s what Coloradans thought before its 2012 legalization, he said. “Now it’s a completely different drug.”

In the 1980s-90s marijuana contained three to four percent THC, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects. Legalization encouraged growers to breed plants with more of the active ingredient, and today’s marijuana can contain 15-20% – or more – THC. The market now offers a wide variety of edibles infused with THC, and concentrates that let users get even more into their bodies more quickly.

THC mimics cannabinoid, a chemical made by the body. Cannabinoid receptors are located in areas of the brain associated with thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and time perception. THC attaches to those receptors and activates them, and so has an impact on thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and time perception.

Higher concentrations of THC can permanently damage adolescents’ developing brains. Frequent use by adolescents and young adults is strongly associated with developing psychotic disorders in adulthood such as schizophrenia in adulthood.

Henning said the immediate impact on adolescent users includes a lack of impulse control; decreased problem-solving and decision-making skills; poor judgement; reduced emotional regulation and frustration tolerance; and a decreased ability to feel empathy. All these lead to increased numbers of accidental injury and death, poor performance at school, relationship problems, depression, and suicide. The availability of edibles puts even younger children at risk of unknowingly consuming THC.

States considering marijuana legalization should include “strong regulation and aggressive enforcement,” Henning said. If not, a black market with cheaper, non-government sanctioned sales can emerge and bring crime with it.  No one under 21 should be allowed access to any form of marijuana, he added. Laws about marijuana use should be easy to tweak as products change, so legalization should not be part of a state constitution, as it is in Colorado.

In states where recreational use is legalized, youth have easier access to marijuana and its derivatives. But in a panel discussion following Henning’s presentation, two men who work with youth in Tennessee, and Lawrence County specifically, said THC products are also available here. 

“Laws don’t change as fast as the trends,” said Lt. Chad Dorning, who supervises Lawrence County’s School Resource Officers and serves as an SRO at Lawrence County High. The public has very little knowledge of products that are available in edibles and vapes at several local convenience and vape stores.

 Delta-8, for instance, is a derivative of hemp with a very low level of THC – until chemical processes are applied to create delta-8 THC. Recently, an LCHS student had to be hospitalized after using a delta-8 vape purchased at a local store. Tests showed that particular vape contained 79% THC, but an identical vape product from the same store showed a THC content of 59%. People who use them can’t know how much THC they will get.

Will Taylor with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ Faith-Based Initiatives also took part in the panel discussion. He said Tennesseans should express their opinions about legalization to legislators “because the pot lobby is strong.”

Both talked about the impact on laws and enforcement that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) made in the 1990s and suggested a similar coalition of parents could discourage the sale of THC products in our state.



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