Here at NIDA, we can't learn enough about the brain. Other scientists are brain-obsessed too-there's even a Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to spread the word about the progress and benefits of brain research. This week, people all over the world will take some time to learn about the complex and beautiful brain. So, in the spirit of the week, here's some "brain bits."
Everyone knows that your brain helps you learn-it stores information and helps you put different pieces together to draw conclusions about all sorts of things: from math problems to history essay questions to whether you like the taste of tomatoes.
The brain relies on a bunch of chemicals called neurotransmitters to get messages from one part of the brain to the other. It's pretty amazing how each neurotransmitter attaches to its own kind of receptor-like how a key fits into a lock. Messages zip through the brain on the right routes thanks to this intricate process.
But drugs can really mess up the brain's traffic patterns. The chemical structure of some drugs, like marijuana, imitates the structure of a natural neurotransmitter. In this way, drugs can "fool" receptors, lock onto them, and alter the activity of nerve cells.
The problem is, drugs don't work exactly the same way as the natural neurotransmitters they resemble. So a brain on drugs sends messages down wrong pathways throughout the brain. Marijuana, for example, can alter concentration and memory. Other drugs can literally reset what the brain needs to feel pleasure so that, without the drug, a person dependent on it feels hopeless and sad.
As you can see, the brain is a complex organ, worthy of its own week of honor. Learn more about your brain and the harmful effects of drugs from these resources:
My name is Sharlett, and I’m from Washington State. Recently, I completed an internship for NIDA in Washington, DC. I worked behind the scenes with the communications experts, which means I was involved with organizing and publicizing different cool events and publications that NIDA offers you.
One of my most interesting projects was helping to spread the word about National Drug Facts Week, which occurred last November. One of my biggest tasks was to promote the “National Drug IQ Challenge en Español”—to encourage teens, their parents, and friends to take the quiz and test their knowledge about drug abuse and addiction. This was the first year the Challenge was offered in Spanish, and everyone has been really excited about it.
I am thrilled I got to be a part of such a great organization. I was offered the chance to work for NIDA in late July, and I knew right away it was an awesome opportunity. Every day, I got to use what I learned in college to promote drug awareness and help teens stay safe. I think it is crucial to make facts about drugs easily available to teens to counteract all the myths that are floating around.
Before coming to NIDA, my knowledge about drugs and drug abuse was very limited. I knew that drugs harm the body and that they can lead to illness or even death. I knew that one of my favorite comedians, Chris Farley, died from a drug overdose in 1997. I began to form perceptions and beliefs about drug abuse, but my “drug IQ” was very basic. After working at NIDA for just a few weeks, I learned some surprising new facts like:
Drug addiction is a disease. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works.
Marijuana can be addictive. The changes from using marijuana or any drug are different for each person. For marijuana, about 1 in 11 people who use it become addicted, and that rate goes up if you start young and if you smoke a lot. To learn the facts about marijuana, check out the booklet, Marijuana: Facts for Teens.
Not all drugs are illegal. Tobacco and alcohol are both addictive drugs and can cause serious health problems. Similarly, prescription drugs, which are meant to help people with health problems, can become addictive and are being abused at high rates among all age groups, including teens.
If more people knew the facts, they could better understand drugs and their consequences. I know I do. The next National Drug Facts Week starts January 28, 2013. I’ll be watching the National Drug Facts Week Web site to see what new and interesting things NIDA has to offer.
In a recent Drug Facts Chat Day, Jiacalone_01 from Cashmere High School in Washington asked: What percentage of 9th graders smoke marijuana?
Most teens are not smoking marijuana. We know this from asking teens themselves. How? Through the annual survey of teen drug use called Monitoring the Future, which surveys 8th, 10th, and 12th graders about their drug use and attitudes. The survey found that about 12% of 8th graders reported marijuana use in 2009 compared to about 27% of 10th graders and 22% of 12th graders. The survey also showed that marijuana use has declined steadily since the mid-1990s until about 2002. Since then, it’s kind of leveled off, so the people here at NIDA are trying to figure out why, and how to get things back to a downward trend.
One reason for the leveling off may be something else the survey found—which is a change in attitudes among teens toward marijuana smoking—that they consider it to be less harmful than they did in years past.
The thing is, marijuana is more than just a mix of dried leaves from the cannabis sativa plant. It actually contains a chemical called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, along with about 400 other chemicals. Although many of these can affect your health, THC is the main psychoactive (i.e., mind altering) ingredient. (In fact, marijuana’s strength or potency is related to the amount of THC it contains, which is something people who use marijuana won’t know since it is an illegal substance.)
THC alters the way your brain functions, which can be bad news for teen brains since they’re still developing. For example, THC can disrupt what goes on in your hippocampus, which can lead to problems with learning and memory—since that’s what this brain area gets involved in. Disrupting its normal functioning can lead to problems studying, learning new things, and recalling recent events. You can read more on marijuana here:
- Marijuana: Facts for Teens
- Facts on Drugs: Marijuana
- NIDA for Teens: Marijuana FAQ
- Marijuana: Topics in Brief
PS—Some people argue that marijuana is not addictive. Wrong! In 2007, the majority of youth (age 17 or younger) entering drug abuse treatment reported marijuana as their primary drug abused. We admit that, we still don’t know everything that marijuana use does to teens. But we do know that adolescents’ brains are still growing and changing—so is it really worth the risk?
Ask NIDA scientist Marilyn A. Huestis, Ph.D., what she wants to tell young people about the synthetic (manmade) marijuana called Spice, and she responds with passion. In a recent interview with SBB, Dr. Huestis shared a news story about teens in Dallas who went to the ER with chest pains, only to learn that they had had heart attacks. All of them had recently smoked Spice.
Dr. Huestis said that dangerous health effects from Spice are possible because of the drug’s potency. “Using Spice is very dangerous because the chemicals and compounds that are in it vary from batch to batch. You might buy a package one week, go back to the same place and buy the exact same package the next week, and the ingredients may be completely different. Not only are the ingredients unknown, but so is the strength of the drug,” she said.
“Because its makeup varies so widely, studying Spice is a challenge,” said Dr. Huestis. “Essentially, if you use it, you’re experimenting on yourself.”
That experimentation could result in other life-threatening health complications. According to a recent news story out of Wyoming, three young people were hospitalized with kidney failure from using blueberry-flavored Spice. A dozen other people got sick. Everyone affected was in their late teens or early 20s.
Use Is Expanding
NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study asked teens about synthetic marijuana for the first time in the 2011 survey. What they found: Approximately 1 in every 10 high school seniors reported use in the past 12 months. Teens and young adults may be drawn to Spice because sometimes it comes in flavors.
Even though it’s illegal in the United States, Spice is still available in some truck stops and other places that market it as incense. Dr. Huestis said this is because manufacturers are constantly changing the ingredients to attempt to get around the bans. However, the United States does have an “analog law,” which bans drugs with chemistry and effects similar to illegal drugs.
“We’re learning more about Spice and how it works in the body and brain every day,” said Dr. Huestis. “Research is focusing on the body’s cannabinoid system, which regulates hunger, memory, and heart rate, among many other important functions. Spice and marijuana hijack this system.”
Read more about Spice.
At NIDA’s Drug Facts Chat Day, we get great questions from teens all over the country about drugs. Here’s one from “hhentze,” representing Junction City High School in Oregon:
What drug is most often used by teens in the USA?
Every year since 1975, the Monitoring the Future Study has surveyed teens to better understand their drug use rates, attitudes, and beliefs. Looking over the past 10 years, data show that more and more teens are saying no to drugs, period. They are not even trying them once.
Still, to answer the question, statistics from 2009 (PDF, 362.76KB) show that the drug most often abused by teens in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades is alcohol, followed by marijuana. The third most abused drug varies by grade—for 8th graders, it’s inhalants. For 10th and 12th graders, it’s Vicodin (a prescription medication for pain). Here’s a little more info:
So, even though alcohol might be the drug most abused by teens, the good news is that the number of teens who report drinking in the last 30 days has gradually declined by as much as 40% over the past 35 years. You go, Gen Y!
Seems marijuana use is slowly creeping upwards after a steady decline that lasted almost 10 years. What’s up with that? The answer may have to do with the fact that young people are seeing marijuana as less risky than before and are more accepting of its use in general.
- Inhalants and Vicodin
With both inhalants and Vicodin, the rates of abuse among teens are about the same as they have been for the past 2-3 years. That’s pretty positive, especially since the study only recently started looking at trends in prescription drugs.
Carry out your own mini-study and see what drugs friends, relatives, or teachers think are most often abused by teens. Feel free to share what you found out with us in the comments. Spread the word, and help set the record straight.
Middle and high school teens have many choices when it comes to extracurricular activities. Some will choose a team sport like basketball, volleyball, football, or softball, while others may choose more individual-type sports like track, golf, tennis, or swimming.
Either way, being an athlete can be a positive experience—it teaches the importance of cooperation and practice, and how to win and lose gracefully—and it helps keep your body healthy. A recent study reports it may also influence decisions about using drugs like cigarettes, marijuana, or alcohol—but the news is not all good.
The good news is that researchers found that students who participate in team sports or exercise regularly report much less cigarette smoking than students not involved in sports. Also, fewer student athletes used marijuana.
The bad news is that the same study showed the reverse when it comes to drinking alcohol—that student athletes were much more likely to drink alcohol than non-athletes. This may be because team sports often involve alcohol—while watching the event or celebrating afterwards. That’s why beer companies are major sponsors of pro sports teams.
Drugs and Alcohol Can Slow You Down
By now, most of us know that smoking cigarettes affects athletes’ abilities in several ways, causing problems with breathing and endurance, for example. And marijuana can compromise your balance, perception, and memory, making it hard to be physically or mentally at your best in competition.
Bottom line: Your body and brain may not respond the way you need them to after you use drugs or drink alcohol.
Knowing the Facts Leads to Winning Choices
Whether you play sports or not, making healthy choices is up to you. So think about this: Are you more likely to drink or smoke if your friends do? How does being part of a team or group influence you?
First off, big thanks to teens and adults everywhere who took the time during NIDA’s first-ever National Drug Facts Week to learn new facts about drug abuse.
After a week full of activities around the country, what can teens take away?
At the center of the week was our annual “Chat Day,” which gave high school students around the country a chance to ask NIDA scientists their questions directly…we got more than 5,000! Here’s a sample?
Q: Does genetics play a big role in addiction?
A: That’s a sophisticated question….I sense future scientists. Research suggests that about 50-60% of the risk for drug addiction is due to your genes, and that about 40% is due to environmental influences (like access to drugs, media influences, drug use among friends).Scientists are now starting to identify some of the exact genes that cause this influence. That is giving them clues to how to develop new medications to help addicted people recover.
Of course, no matter what your genes are, you won't get addicted if you just don't take drugs.
Q. Does every teen take drugs?
A. You might think so from watching tv and movies, but you would be wrong. Most teens do NOT take drugs. In 2009, little more than a third of 12th graders reported using an illegal drug in the past year, mainly marijuana. Fewer 10th graders and even fewer 8th graders reported using an illegal drug. It’s a good question you ask, because many teens tend to want to do what other teens do, and if they think everyone else is using, that might influence them to use. That would be making two mistakes.
Q: How can prescription drugs be fatal to us?
A. Pretty much by how they can affect blood flow in your body (like blood vessels getting narrower), or how the brain tells the heart to beat and the lungs to expand and contract. Several medications are ”depressants,” and combined with other drugs, especially alcohol, can shut down that breathing machinery. That’s why these kinds of drugs have warning labels. The key is to only use prescription medications under the care and direction of your doctor. They can be life-saving that way. The problems come when you abuse them or take someone else's prescription.
Q: How does marijuana get you high specifically
A. The exact nature of what ”high” is still up in the air, but here is some of what we know. The active ingredient in marijuana is THC, which causes cellular reactions in the brain that ultimately lead to the high that users get. THC acts on what are called “cannabinoid receptors,” found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thoughts, concentration, time perception, and coordinated movement. This is why some 'weed' smokers experience problems with memory, concentration, and coordination. And some marijuana users, about 9%, get addicted.
Know the Facts, Think before You Act!
Teens and adult sponsors organized events to shatter drug myths from California to Florida to Maine and everywhere in between. At Rockville High School, in Rockville, Maryland, teens produced this public service announcement advertising National Drug Facts Chat Day. http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/schools/rockvillehs/Ramvision/index.html
Other events included the following:
- The Boys and Girls Club’s family advocacy network in Sulphur Springs, Texas, hosted a symposium for parents, caregivers, and youth of all ages, giving them the chance to ask questions about drugs.
- YOUth CARES of El Cajon Valley, California, shared drug facts during morning announcements for middle and high school kids and sponsored a carnival for middle school, high school, and college students. One review called “a great event,” adding that it was “encouraging to see so many teenagers taking action against substance use, and promoting health and fun!”
- NIDA held a CyberShoutout to kick off National Drug Facts Week. All over the country, people blogged, tweeted, and posted to Facebook in support of “shattering the myths” about drug abuse and addiction. Click here to see what people had to say!
This first-ever Drug Facts Week couldn’t have been such a success without your help! But we’ve only just begun: watch this blog for more facts, games, and quizzes to get the drug facts.
According to a recent driving study, as many as 1 in 5 teen drivers say they drove under the influence of marijuana. More than one-third of them did not believe that marijuana affected their driving, whereas less than one-fifth of teens who drove after drinking alcohol said their driving wasn’t impaired.
These numbers show that some teen drivers aren’t getting the message that both alcohol and drugs—including marijuana—are dangerous risks behind the wheel. Not only that, but drivers under the influence of these substances endanger other users of the road as well.
Reducing drunk driving has been a focus of public health campaigns in the United States for a long time. After all, SADD, which now stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions, started out as Students Against Drunk Driving. Only recently have people started talking about how driving high or buzzed is just as risky as driving drunk.
Your Brain in the Driver’s Seat
Because driving is such a common activity, it’s easy to forget how you really must stay alert to stay safe. While it may seem like your body goes on automatic when accelerating or changing lanes, really your brain is in high gear.
Drugs and alcohol interfere with the brain’s ability to function properly. THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, affects areas of the brain that control the body’s movements, balance, coordination, memory, and judgment, so it’s no surprise that marijuana and driving don’t mix.
The driving study mentioned above also found that 90% of teen drivers would stop driving under the influence of marijuana if asked by their passengers. If you see someone who’s about to drive after using marijuana, tell them it’s not a good idea.
Note: Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only things that may mess with your driving skills—check out Distraction.gov to find out about how eating, using a GPS, texting, or talking to passengers can also lead to an accident.
Hello! I am just back from speaking at a news conference about NIDA’s 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF)—a big crowd of reporters showed up to hear the latest numbers with regard to teens and drug use. I wrote about MTF last year, remember? To remind you, MTF is an anonymous survey of more than 46,000 8th, 10th and 12th graders around the country. The survey measures drug and alcohol use. It also assesses teens’ attitudes about drugs by asking these questions: “Do you think drugs are harmful?” “Do you disapprove of drugs?” And… “How available are they?” This year we had some surprising changes that have me worried.
For one thing, marijuana use is going up, especially among 8th graders. The survey also showed that fewer teens think marijuana is harmful. This is one of the biggest drug myths out there. Not only does marijuana affect learning, judgment, and motor skills, but research tells us that about 1 in 11 people who use marijuana even once will later become addicted to it. AND, the younger people start, the more likely this will happen. Therefore, I am especially concerned by survey results showing that daily marijuana use increased significantly among all three grades, so that in 2010, 6.1 percent of high school seniors, 3.3 percent of 10th-graders, and 1.2 percent of 8th-graders were daily marijuana users.
In some cases it looks as if marijuana is becoming more popular than cigarettes. In 2010, 21.4 percent of high school seniors used marijuana in the past 30 days, while 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes. The good news is there are still a lot of wise teens who stay away from both marijuana and cigarettes. Research shows that these kids will be more successful in school, and in life.
(note: Video is from 2009)
The MTF Survey also tells us that abuse of prescription drugs remains high. That is when you use a medication not prescribed for you or in a way not intended—such as taking ADHD drugs before a test or taking a pain reliever to get high. In fact, 6 of the top 10 drugs abused by 12th-graders in the past year were prescribed or purchased over- the- counter. Prescription pain relievers (opioids) are a particular problem, with many more overdoses occurring than in the past.
NIDA would like to hear your feedback—why do you think more teens are using marijuana, and fewer are disapproving of its use?
Many teenagers assume smoking weed is harmless because of all the myths floating around saying it’s safe. What few people know is that the age you start using marijuana actually makes a difference. In fact, if you start smoking it as a teenager, there can be some serious problems for you down the road.
Although we already knew from past research that if you start smoking pot as a teen, you’ll be more likely to get addicted, new research (just published in a well-known journal called Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) now says if you smoke marijuana heavily as a teenager, it can actually lower your IQ!
Scientists looked at more than 1,000 people born in 1972 and 1973. When they were 13 years old, they were given IQ and other kinds of intelligence tests. They were interviewed every few years about their use of marijuana and then tested again when they were 38 years old.
The results? Those who smoked weed heavily as teens showed mental decline even after they quit using the drug—and had, on average, an 8-point drop in their IQ scores. An 8-point loss could push a person of average intelligence into the lower third of testers. Those who started smoking pot after age 18 also showed some decline, but not as much.
This was an interesting study because it also collected information from people who knew the study participants. They reported that people who smoked marijuana heavily had more memory and attention problems and did not organize their lives as well, misplacing things and forgetting to keep appointments, pay bills, or return calls. This highlights the lasting effect marijuana can have on the teenage brain, which is still developing and still wiring itself to handle the onslaught of information it gets every day. The toxic chemicals in marijuana can mess up that wiring process and hurt your ability to do well in school and in life.
Carol Krause is the Chief of the Public Information and Liaison Branch at NIDA. Since arriving at NIDA in 2006, Ms. Krause has launched several new innovative programs for teens, including Drug Facts Chat Day (an annual live Web chat between NIDA scientists and teens), National Drug Facts Week (to stimulate community events between scientists and teens), and the first Addiction Science Awards for high school participants in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Spice—also known as K2, Fake Marijuana, Skunk, and other names—is a synthetic (or man-made) substance made from shredded dried plant materials and chemicals. Spice appears to stimulate the same brain receptors—molecules that recognize specific chemicals and transmit messages into cells—as marijuana does and produces a similar “high.”
Like marijuana, Spice is usually abused by smoking, but it can be prepared as a drink.
Because Spice is marketed as being “natural,” some people may think it’s safe to use. But the ingredients used to make Spice can vary, and no one’s watching to see what people producing Spice are using—meaning the results could have dangerous effects on your body and brain. Some mixtures even contain harmful metal residues.
Spice is illegal in the United States and in most European countries. The U.S. Naval Academy recently expelled seven midshipmen for using it.
Spice products are labeled “not fit for human consumption” and are illegal in the United States and most European countries. Its side effects, like the ingredients, often vary, but emergency rooms report seeing people with rapid heart rates, vomiting, agitation, and hallucinations.
Using Spice can lead to abuse and even addiction as the body builds up tolerance to the drug’s effects over time and craves a higher dose to achieve the same effect.
So, SBB’s recommendation? Get your highs the natural way: exercise, friends, music, whatever you like to do—without altering your brain’s chemistry!
Knowing the health risks that come with using or abusing drugs convinces most teens (and adults) to stay away from them. But what if you don’t think certain drugs are unsafe?
In December 2012, NIDA released the results of the 2012 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study (involving 8th, 10th, and 12th graders). The findings show that fewer teens believe abusing marijuana and Adderall is bad for their health. This belief is contributing to higher rates of abuse of these drugs.
Over the last 5 years, current (past-month) marijuana use has gone up significantly among 10th and 12th graders. In fact, current marijuana use among high school seniors is at its highest point since the late 1990s. Daily marijuana use has climbed significantly across all three grades. The study also found that fewer teens now believe using marijuana is harmful.
However, the science shows otherwise. People who smoke a lot of pot risk injuring their lungs with the chemicals found in the smoke, and may also experience depression and anxiety. New research has found smoking marijuana heavily in your teen years and continuing into adulthood can actually lower your IQ!
Also in the 2012 MTF study, 12th graders reported increased nonmedical use of the prescription stimulant Adderall—commonly prescribed to people with ADHD. As with marijuana, fewer teens perceive that abusing Adderall is risky. If that trend continues, Adderall abuse will probably continue to increase as well.
Abusing a stimulant medication like Adderall may increase blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature; decrease appetite and sleep; and cause feelings of hostility and paranoia.
Perception of Risk
Studies have found that when teens think a drug can be harmful, they are less likely to abuse it. In the case of marijuana and Adderall, it appears that some teens don’t see the risk. Tell us: Do you think these drugs are dangerous? If you agree they are, what can we do to help people you know get the message?
Other notable findings from the 2012 MTF study:
- Most of the top drugs abused by 12th graders are legal substances, like alcohol, tobacco, over-the-counter drugs, and prescription drugs.
- Abuse of synthetic marijuana—K2 or Spice—remained stable in 2012.
- Most teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from family and friends.
- Alcohol use and cigarette smoking are steadily declining.
Check out this cool infographic to learn more.
These drug abuse estimates come from the Monitoring the Future study’s national surveys of approximately 45,000 students in about 400 secondary schools each year. View all of the 2012 data.
Mean Girls…or Violent Girls? A recent national survey (the National Survey on Drug Use and Health) found that more than one-quarter (26.7%) of girls age 12 to 17 reported engaging in some kind of violent behavior in the last year. Whaaat? There’s more…in this age group:
- 18.6% got into a serious fight at school or work in the past 12 months.
- 14.1% participated in a group-against-group fight.
- 5.7% attacked others with the intent to hurt them seriously.
So what does this have to do with drugs? The study also found that violence and drug use are linked: girls who engaged in violent behaviors were two to three times more likely to have binged on alcohol or used marijuana or other illicit drugs in the past month. Girls engaging in violent behavior were also more likely to report missing school and getting bad grades. To read more about the study, visit SAMHSA News.
“Marijuana is natural, so how can it be harmful?”
Lots of teens ask us this question, and it’s a good one—a great question, in fact.
People often think that substances found in nature are automatically safer than chemicals that are made in a laboratory or a factory. It’s not that simple, unfortunately. Lots of beneficial substances are human made (medicines, for example), and lots of harmful ones come straight from the earth.
Tobacco is a great example. Like marijuana, tobacco is a plant whose leaves have been dried, crumbled, and smoked for thousands of years. It was used in religious rituals by Native Americans, who believed that exhaling tobacco smoke carried their thoughts and prayers to heaven; they also believed it possessed medicinal properties.
Once American settlers began growing the crop and exporting it to Europe and the rest of the world, tobacco enjoyed a reputation kind of like marijuana does today: Some monarchs and religious leaders thought it was unhealthy and morally corrupt and tried to ban it; but lots of people enjoyed the “precious weed” and sided with the physicians of the time, who actually praised its healing virtues—claiming that smoking tobacco could cure most forms of sickness and even protect a person from getting the plague!
It wasn’t until around the 1950s that modern medicine, armed with better science, established the truth about smoking tobacco—it can cause diseases like lung cancer and it is highly addictive. No one would now argue that tobacco is safe, let alone good for you. But it is “natural.”
Marketers of foods and other products use the “natural equals good for you” assumption all the time to manipulate people’s buying behavior. For instance, when shoppers see the “All Natural” label on a food, they tend to think it’s good for them even if it contains lots of unhealthy sugar or fat—both of which are, like tobacco, “natural.”
We still don’t know whether smoking marijuana causes lung cancer like tobacco does, but strong evidence shows that it does other bad stuff: It interferes with thinking and memory, it can lower your IQ if you smoke it regularly in your teen years, and—as a result of these and other things—it can set you up to miss achieving your full potential in life.
Is a “natural” way to hurt your brain any better than an unnatural one?
Eric Wargo is a science writer at NIDA. Before coming to NIDA, he wrote for an association of psychological scientists, people who study all aspects of the mind and human behavior. He is excited to work at NIDA, because NIDA scientists study the brain, and the brain is at the root of everything we humans do.
Hollywood is exciting, glamorous, dramatic, funny, and can make just about anything seem cool—including drug abuse, and especially the use of marijuana. But films don’t tell you the whole story. Did you know there are over 400 different chemicals in marijuana smoke? Did you know that marijuana smoke really does hurt your memory, judgment, and perception? And yes—you can get addicted to marijuana!
In this video, NIDA scientist Dr. Joe Frascella explains why marijuana is not all its “glammed” up to be. Dr. Frascella runs the division of NIDA that deals with clinical neuroscience, human development, and behavioral treatment for drug abuse and addiction. Watch the video and then tell us in comments which movies you think glamorize the use of marijuana.
Dr. Frascella: At NIDA, we’re interested in how drug abuse affects brain and behavior, so we can learn how to better prevent and treat it.
We’re finding out that all drugs of abuse change the brain. Our task as scientists and researchers is to try to figure out 1) How to prevent the use of drugs that change the brain, and 2) Once the brain has been changed, can we change it back to normal?
We know generally that drugs change the brain in ways that result in some dysfunctional behaviors.
SBB: What does that mean?
Dr. Frascella: Well, for instance, addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug taking. That means once you start [abusing drugs], you often can’t stop, even if you want to. That is because your brain has been changed in ways that “hijack” your self-control. So although your initial decision to take drugs was a voluntary behavior (maybe you thought you’d try them out once or twice), it ends up being compulsive behavior, where you are driven to repeat drug use again and again.
Over time, if you keep taking drugs, you’re no longer in control. The drug-seeking urges or drug cravings become so strong that you can’t stop.
SBB: Is marijuana one of those drugs that can hijack the brain?
Dr. Frascella: It certainly could. There are plenty of people who start out smoking pot recreationally. Some people may try it to be “cool” and have fun with their friends. They like it so much, they keep doing it. But 15 to 20 years later, they’re still smoking marijuana every day, once, twice, or three or more times a day. They can’t go to sleep without it; and they have trouble with thinking and remembering things. It becomes a big problem in their lives.
SBB: Does smoking pot have any unique effects when you’re a teen?
Dr. Frascella: We know that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed in areas where making decisions and exercising good judgment (the frontal areas of the brain) are involved. Adding drugs of abuse further compromises those same brain areas, so it’s like a “double whammy.” Because the brain isn’t fully developed, drugs can have a greater effect on it and cause the brain not to function properly.
If you think about a car, drugs push the “go” system, the gas pedal. The frontal areas of the brain are like the braking system. Those brakes are not fully developed, and the drugs are pushing on that accelerator without having brakes. We really need those frontal brain areas to help us weigh two sides of a decision properly and consider the consequences, which we don’t tend to do when we’re young and feeling like nothing can hurt us.
SBB: So we’re speeding through life with no brakes, and whatever is in front of us gets mowed down?
Dr. Frascella: Well, hopefully not. Hopefully we aren’t without any brakes. Our research at NIDA is to figure out ways to enhance those braking systems and come up with therapies that can help teenagers and adults who want to take back their lives from the grip of drugs.
*Note: In order to listen to the podcast, you will need to have a media player on your computer.
Okay, say you’re at a party. The friends you came with have been drinking, but you haven’t. When it’s time to head home, you’re nervous—you’ve heard all about drunk driving and how dangerous it is. So, what would you do to protect yourself and your friends? Do you have a plan to deal with situations like this?
Now, what would you do if your friends had been smoking pot instead of drinking? It turns out “drugged driving” can be just as dangerous. Someone who’s been smoking pot or doing other drugs puts everyone at risk, including themselves, when they get behind the wheel. They have slower reflexes and so can’t respond as well in an emergency. In fact, if you look at car crashes where the driver is killed, about 1 in 5 involves drugs other than alcohol (like marijuana).
Usually, drugged drivers have been drinking alcohol, too—making them doubly dangerous on the road. Research shows that driving under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol is riskier than with alcohol or marijuana alone.
Look, it’s hard to go against the group. But the last thing we want to do is see our friends get hurt, arrested, or even killed. So, what can we do?
Here are some ideas:
- Stay smart and speak up. Remember that the effects of marijuana and alcohol last for hours, so even if your friends haven’t had a drink in a while, it could still be dangerous for them to drive. If you are in a healthy state of mind and have your driver’s licence on you, ask for the keys and get the group home safely.
- Find another ride. Try to find another sober friends to give you a lift.
- Call someone to pick you up. Okay, so you might not want to call Mom or Dad to get you from a party; but chances are, they’ll be happier that you called them rather than put yourself in a dangerous situation. You also could call another family member.
- Crash at the host’s house. If possible, wait it out until morning and stay put. Just make sure to let someone know where you are and that you are safe.
The best advice: Plan ahead. If you know people will be drinking, pick a “designated driver” before you head out. Better yet, throw your own booze-free bash!
Read more facts and stats about impaired driving.
Ever wonder how teens in other schools or parts of the country feel about drug abuse? Two teens recently told SBB about their real-life experiences with drugs and high school:
Think of the two words: weed and cigarettes. What’s the first thing that crosses your mind? Maybe it’s addiction…but to a lonely teen who feels like an outcast from society, it might be something completely different. Maybe the first thing they think of is fitting in. In high school there are loads of different cliques, like the manly jocks, the nerds, that group of back-stabbing sassy girls. They’re all unique, and so are the stoners. And to a lonely freshman, this is a whole new world, and they may feel left out. Which is probably terrifying, because not fitting in is the worst feeling in the world. Whether it’s having no one to eat with at lunch, or not having a partner to do the assignment with in class.
If you take a closer look at the mind of that freshman, the only thing that he’s going to be thinking about is having some friends, and how he can fit in with one of those cliques. However, he may not exactly fit anywhere, and now he may be feeling even worse than before. Maybe he’ll turn to drugs, not because it’s the cool thing to do but because he desperately wants to be part of something, and the stoner group is the easiest one to be a part of! But just because they’re easy to be friends with doesn’t mean that they are who you should hang with.
As brainless as this may sound, some teens will stop at nothing to be “popular.” And this is exactly what happened to one of the kids at my school. He started out innocent and open, but now drugs are the only thing on his mind. He’s not the same kid he was, and there’s no way I can respect someone who did what he did, no matter how desperate he was. Drugs are never the answer to any of your problems.
On the last day of the first week of school, my school had a back-to-school dance. Even though this year it seemed like it would be really dumb, some friends and I decided to go. Some other kids we knew decided to go, too, but said they were going to smoke beforehand. That plan seemed way too risky because our school was getting really serious about drugs and threatened to have police at the dance. They decided to do it anyway.
About 10 minutes into the dance, teachers started coming in and looking around, and we saw them pull someone we knew who was in the group that smoked. Then, another one of our friends got pulled out. Eventually, the school contacted all the parents of kids in the group that smoked before the dance.
Although the kids involved were able to avoid any legal charges, they were given a 2-week suspension and forced to go to drug counseling sessions until deemed ready to stop by their respective counselors. The ones on football were also kicked off the team for the season and had to apologize to their coaches. Two of them are still in trouble with their parents and lost their trust because of it. In the end, I really don’t think the consequences were worth the 10 minutes they were able to have fun at the dance.
So maybe think about their situation and how it ended up for them the next time you want to do what they did.
ots of teens have questions about drugs. That’s why each year, NIDA scientists spend a day chatting online with high school students and answering their questions.
At NIDA’s last Drug Facts Chat Day, ham223 asked this question:
“What types of drugs are most used by high school students?”
According to NIDA’s Monitoring the Future Survey—which looks at the different drugs that teens are using—alcohol is number one (yes, it’s a drug), followed by tobacco and marijuana, which are pretty equal. Turns out, though, that not many teens are using most illegal drugs. The survey shows that in 2008, fewer than 1 in 6 10th graders reported that they used any illegal drug in the past month. And the numbers are still going down.
How Many Teens Actually Smoke, Drink, or Do Drugs?
It’s natural to be curious about your peers—especially when it comes to things that we know can be dangerous, like alcohol and drug use. You’ve probably heard rumors of kids drinking beer at a party or may have a friend who smokes cigarettes.
You may wonder how many teens actually smoke, drink, or do drugs. It’s a question we hear frequently from teens. During NIDA’s 2011 Drug Facts Chat Day, students from the around the country asked NIDA scientists questions such as:
- “How many teens smoke every year?”
- “Has the number of people who abuse drugs increased or decreased in the past 5 years? And why?”
- “What percent of teens has tried drugs?”
- “How many kids are doing drugs?”
In December 2011, NIDA released the 2011 Monitoring the Future Study, and it seems that more teens are making better decisions when it comes to smoking and alcohol use, but not so much when it comes to using marijuana and abusing prescription drugs.
Here’s a glimpse at the most recent trends in teen drug and alcohol use.
Cigarette and Alcohol Use at Historic Low
Teen smoking has declined in all three grades included in the study—grades 8, 10, and 12. Still, almost 19 percent of 12th graders reported current (past-month) cigarette use.
This decline shows that more teens realize the harm smoking does to your body and are making the decision not to start. Also, teens’ attitudes about smoking have changed. They increasingly prefer to date nonsmokers and believe smoking to be a dirty habit.
Likewise, among nearly all grades, trends over the past 5 years showed significant decreases in alcohol use—including first-time use, occasional use, daily use, and binge drinking. As with smoking, this decline may be the result of more teens understanding the risk of drinking alcohol and disapproving of this behavior.
Marijuana Use Continues To Rise
Unlike cigarettes and alcohol, marijuana use is increasing. Among 12th graders, 36.4 percent reported using marijuana at least once in the past year, up from 31.5 percent 5 years ago. This accompanies a decrease in the number of 12th graders who perceive that smoking marijuana is harmful. For example, only 22.7 percent of high school seniors saw great risk in smoking marijuana occasionally, compared to 25.9 percent 5 years ago.
Of course, we know the risks: marijuana can affect memory, judgment, and perception, and it can harm a teen’s developing brain.
Prescription Drug Abuse Remains Steady
Prescription drug abuse hasn’t changed much since 2010. Abuse of the opioid painkiller Vicodin and the nonmedical use of Adderall and Ritalin, stimulants meant to treat ADHD, remained about the same as last year. Also, the abuse of the opioid painkiller OxyContin remained steady for the past 5 years across all 3 grades surveyed.
To drive this trend downward, NIDA recently launched PEERx, a prescription drug abuse awareness campaign that gives teens science-based information about the harmful effects of prescription drug abuse on the brain and body.
When teens understand the health risks of abusing drugs, they do it less. So, tell us, how would you convince your peers that marijuana use and prescription drug abuse are harmful?
These estimates come from the Monitoring the Future Study's national surveys of approximately 47,000 students in about 400 secondary schools each year. The survey was conducted in classrooms earlier this year. View all of the 2011 data.
NIDA's annual DRUG FACTS CHAT DAY, held November 10, was a huge success. The computer-filled room where it happened vibrated with excitement, as more than 40 NIDA scientists eagerly tried to answer as many questions as they could. And questions they got. Teens from around the country sent in some 13,000 questions about drugs—wow, so nice to hear from you!
So what was different about Chat Day this year? Well for one, there seemed to be twice as many questions on marijuana. Maybe that's because the news lately is full of talk about marijuana (how confusing—some adults say it's bad for you, and others say it can be used as a medicine!). If you want to know how our scientists answered these questions, check out the CHAT DAY transcript, coming soon to http://www.nida.nih.gov/chat/.
What happens with the questions we didn't have time to answer? In the next few days, we will be reviewing all of the questions so we can learn more about what teens want to know about drugs. We're planning on adding what we find out to our teen Web site and we will blog more about it, too. If you think DRUG FACTS CHAT DAY sounds like fun, ask your school to sign up for next year. Schools will be able to register this summer. We'll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, here's a list of some topics and the percentage of kids who asked about them this year.
30%: General questions (like "What's the worst drug?" or "Why do kids take drugs?")
20%: Marijuana 10%: Nicotine
8.5%: Illegal street drugs like cocaine, meth, LSD, PCP, and ecstasy
5.0%: How do I get help for a friend or family member?
< 3%: Steroids, Inhalants, Rx Drugs, Pregnancy (questions like "Are drugs bad for the baby?")
Ok, so what would you or your friends have asked about?