LENOX -- Casual, recreational marijuana use by adults appears to be low-risk, but chronic, heavy use in younger people carries a number of potential perils.
Those were among the points made by Rick Cresta, a clinical social worker, who delivered a fast-paced, multimedia presentation on the subject last week at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.
The event drew an attentive crowd of at least 130 parents and teens from Lenox, Pittsfield and nearby communities.
For young adults, Cresta said, dependence on marijuana for "highs" hampers emotional connections with family and friends, increases apathy and can hinder mental development, especially since the drug is often laced with increasing amounts of dangerous chemical compounds.
"People who smoke a lot of weed become less interested in the world around them, and become less interesting," he said. "Marijuana helps people not care, it takes the edge off difficult emotions."
Constant use leads to lower highs, and higher lows, fueling depression, he told listeners.
The ultimate, most significant but never-discussed downside of marijuana, in his view, involves relationships -- heavy users don't feel as close to people as they would like.
"Most of us want to feel connected, and marijuana is causing a disconnect," Cresta said. "The ‘high you' is not the real you. The real you is the authentic you, with all the good and bad. The only way you can feel good about relationships is if you let the other person see the real you."
The forum was set up by Berkshire United Way, the Berkshire Youth Development Project and the Lenox School Department.
Cresta was introduced by Nancy Stoll, Berkshire United Way's community impact director and a Lenox resident whose daughter is a senior at the high school.
More than 25 percent of Berkshire County 10th-graders and more than one-third of 12th-graders are using marijuana regularly, Stoll said.
Cresta, who teaches at Boston University and has a private practice working with youth in the city, emphasized that he had no intention of "demonizing weed ... and I'm not going to make judgments about adult use."
Instead, he focused on chronic use of the drug by adolescents and pre-adults, two or three times a week up to three or more times a day.
"It's a great thing to do if you don't want things to change," said Cresta, quoting remarks by several clients. "It won't kill you, just your dreams."
Studies show that drug use peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, then trended down but has spiked in recent years, he told the audience, while the "perceived risk" has trended downward.
Acknowledging widespread mixed messages on marijuana ranging from "wonder drug" benefits to toxic perils, Cresta described the truth as lying midway between the extremes. He cited a national survey that found 62 percent of young people do not view regular, heavy use of marijuana as dangerous, while a recent poll of Massachusetts residents showed 52 percent favor legalization of the drug, a dramatic shift in public opinion.
However, he pointed out, "marijuana is not your grandmother's weed, not to say your grandmother smoked weed" since it contains a significantly higher percentage of THC, the active, potent compound in the cannabis plant that makes users high. The drug contains anywhere from 80 to 300 additional compounds.
Cresta cited areas of the brain that involve long-term decision-making, problem-solving and regulating emotions are not yet fully developed in teens.
He also pinpointed concerns over dependency -- "If I get happy by doing a substance, I won't be happy unless I have more of that substance available. If I'm happy by doing something that makes me feel good about myself, that doesn't go away, it lasts. The act of getting your needs met by using a drug can be seen as problematic in itself."
But Cresta faulted the federal government for still classifying marijuana as a "schedule 1 substance," the same category as heroin and cocaine. That causes passionate supporters of marijuana to become more vocal, he said, fueling grass-roots efforts to change the law and casting federal officials as being "out of touch." The classification also hampers academic research and scientific studies.
In contrast to alcohol, cocaine and heroin, Cresta pointed out, "marijuana typically causes problems just for the person who uses. People who smoke weed aren't getting in fights, disrupting class, they're doing very little to cause problems for other people, so most people say, ‘let it be, let it chill, they're not doing anything.' ... For marijuana, the consequences are subtle and they often lag behind the use."
He noted that, contrary to popular belief, while marijuana is addictive for 9 percent of people who smoke, the rate is higher for teens.
Benefits of marijuana cited by teens, Cresta explained, include relaxation, reducing anxiety, sharpening focus, aiding sleep, enhancing creativity and relieving boredom.
"A lot of adults don't want to hear this, but the truth is, it does all those things, at least in the short term," he asserted. "And most teens are looking to get their short-term needs met."
"But I would argue there's a better way to do each of those things," Cresta stated. "It's better because you own it, it's long-lasting." Otherwise, weed users become dependent on the drug, and need more of it in greater quantities to maintain their highs.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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