Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the United States. States are embracing legalization one by one with widespread support as the national market for weed continues to increase rapidly.

To put this in perspective, 33 states plus the District of Columbia, now approve the illicit drug for medical use while 10 states including D.C. have legalized recreational use. Nearly two-thirds of Americans endorse legalization, double the rate in 2000.

Still, medical researchers continue to caution against its use because of the unknown effects on health. Let’s review what we know about marijuana today.

Increasing strength

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and is commonly used to measure potency. Over the past 20 years, the quantity of THC in marijuana has risen steadily, taking a major leap in legal markets.

The average THC content for leaves, flowers and buds in 1995 was less than 4 percent. Popular strains today are more than four times more potent, with THC contents over 20 percent. An extract-based product, also known as a concentrate (wax, dabs, oils), has a THC content range between 40 percent and 90 percent, up from 8 percent in 1995. Higher potencies are in high demand due to the increase in effects, but this also increases the connected risks.

The real risks

Marijuana most likely won’t take your life, but can easily cause problems, even more than alcohol. Heavy users are more likely to receive lower grades, drop out of school, have a reduced IQ for those that start as teens, and experience the consequences of abuse and addiction.

Addiction rates have drastically increased recently. One out of 6 teenagers who try marijuana will become addicted. Twenty-one percent of all current marijuana users meet the criteria for addiction. For alcohol, the addiction rate for current users is only 13 percent.

A growing amount of research indicates marijuana as a causative factor for several mental health problems. The risk for suicidal thoughts is increased on average 7-fold in teens using high-potency marijuana. Veterans who use marijuana regularly are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who don’t.

There is also the risk of developing a mental illness, which increases 4-fold in heavy users. Marijuana use generally comes before the mental illness and can worsen symptoms to a chronic level. The risk of schizophrenia in heavy users compared to non-users has doubled recently due to the increases in potency, which means 1 in 20 heavy users will develop the illness.

The answer

It will take more time to learn what effect the long-term use of higher potency marijuana will have on public health. The concerns medical researchers have today should not be overlooked if someone is considering using marijuana. The current law allows anyone over the age of 21 years old in Vermont to make that choice, but something to keep in mind: 76 percent of high school students and 85 percent of adults in Vermont have made the choice not to use marijuana in the last 30 days.

Partners for Prevention is a community network dedicated to sustainable substance abuse prevention efforts for Rutland County youth and young adults. Stay connected by liking the Partners for Prevention on Facebook:

This week’s Health Talk was written by Alan Saltis, regional prevention partnerships coordinator, Rutland Regional Medical Center.

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