Clearing The Air About Marijuana Use Among San Diego Teens
May 16, 2013 1:13 p.m.
Dr. Carmen Pulido, Asst. Professor at the Psychiatry Dept, UC San Diego, also VA Medical Center
Related Story: Clearing The Air About Marijuana Use Among San Diego Teens
CAVANAUGH: Most of the discussion recently about marijuana use in San Diego has resolved around how to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries. Now a county agency wants to change that conversation and talk about the nonmedical use of marijuana and its potential dangers to young people. A forum is set for this evening to talk about the rising use of marijuana among San Diego students and how chronic use can hurt kids. My guest is eye psychologist at the VA Medical Center, and assistant professor at the Psychiatry Department at UC San Diego. Carmen, welcome to our show.
PULIDO: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: The crux of your research has to do with the effect of marijuana on young brains. Tell us a little bit about that.
PULIDO: We're very interested in examining what are the effects of any use in the brain cell of young adolescent. The reason for this is because we're -- we -- we understand that the brain is still undergoing development. So we're concerned about whether these intoxicants may change ear impair in some way this normal developmental time.
CAVANAUGH: Is there a particular part of the brain that might be affected by chronic use of intoxicants if someone's brain is still developing?
PULIDO: When we look at our studies as a whole, the frontal lobe appears to have a serious hit. And we can break it down in terms of the different cognitive abilities that that involves. But we're seeing some serious effect, even among adolescents who are just using but not showing problems.
CAVANAUGH: And the frontal lobes would control what?
PULIDO: They control executive functioning. And so this is very important for young individuals to make decisions in life, to assess what their different options are, select an option, execute it, and then determine what was the outcome.
CAVANAUGH: Could the same be said about alcohol and its effect on the developing brains of young kids?
PULIDO: So a lot of addictions, they operate through similar mechanisms. And so in our studies of the university with adolescents with alcohol use disorders, we have also observed some degradation in their performances am
CAVANAUGH: And the same effect on the frontal lobe?
CAVANAUGH: I see. Let me ask you to step back and tell us why you became interested in this area of research, working with young people and marijuana use.
PULIDO: Well, originally, I was very interested in studying the brain. And I'm the mother of who children, my children are adolescents. So the more and more I have spent time studying the effects of alcohol and marijuana use in the brain, the more I have come to feel more attached and more compelled to this information because it applies to me, my family, and my children's peers as well.
CAVANAUGH: And you've been involved now in community outreach for that same reason?
PULIDO: That's correct.
CAVANAUGH: The teen years are when many also development not only their judgment, their decision-making skills, but also their social skills. What have you found or what has research found about how that might be affected by frequent marijuana use?
PULIDO: So to be more pacific about the effects we have seen with marijuana use and these teenager, it appears that recent marijuana use affects cognitive abilities like learning and working memory and attention. When you think about it, those are very important functions during learning. And during the adolescent years, we're thinking about academic learning but also about emotional learning and about interpersonal relationships and how to manage them. So we are concerned about what these effects does not only academically for teenagers but also other aspects of their lives.
CAVANAUGH: When it comes to how they deal with their peer, teachers, and the adults in their lives?
PULIDO: Yes, because one of the concerns or the questions that come to mind is that if they are utilizing marijuana to cope with situations in their lives instead of learning other skills and applying them and practicing them, what is going to happen with these individual as an adult, and what is going to happen when these individual decides to abstain from marijuana? Are they going to still need to acquire those skills? Are they going to be able to cope with life without the substance use? So there's a lot of things that the research suggests in terms of the long-term effects of marijuana. A lot of these has to be backed up with more research. So we are really interested in continuing our work and learning more about objectively about what are the effects of substance use in these young individuals.
CAVANAUGH: Who has been studying the rate of marijuana use in students here in San Diego? And what have these studies found?
PULIDO: I'm very fortunate to collaborate with a number of UCSD investigators, Susan Taper and Sandra Brown. So some of these studies have included individuals who are 14-17 or 18 years old. So very young. And we recruit adolescents who are healthy and don't use any substances, and also adolescents who are marijuana users. And I have to mention, these teenager, they don't show any symptoms of problems. Sois they are otherwise healthy, they are recruited when -- if they don't have any history or problems or anything that you would suggest any brain disguise. And what we're seeing is that those effects are immediate following recent substance use. Recent marijuana use, like I was mentioning learning of verbal material, working memory and attention. We see that they improve to similar levels as those as the healthy adolescents in fairly a short time. So for some of these ability, within 2-3 week, we see improvements where you really cannot tell apart the users from the nonusers.
CAVANAUGH: We talk a lot in this about chronic marijuana use. What constitutes chronic use?
PULIDO: That's a very good question. Because when you are thinking about youth, you have to think a little bit differently. Because their life histories are a lot shorter, and when their substance use has started. So it is very difficult to compare a chronic marijuana user who is an adult to an adolescent because adolescents, chronic may be just for four years. We tend to focus on whether symptoms have arised already despite their short using careers. And the frequency of their use, whether they're using weekly or daily. And if they're using a number of times during the day.
CAVANAUGH: And the rate, the actual rate of marijuana use in students in San Diego has increased; is that right?
PULIDO: That is very true. Unfortunately we see these rates of increase at the national level as well but we have really good research here in San Diego where over the past seven years, we have seen a constant increase. Seeing that increase only suggests that things are likely to continue if we don't do something.
CAVANAUGH: Is that increase on a sort of an upward line? Or does it go up and then go down and that kind of thing?
PULIDO: Yes, so when you look at the past two decades, you can see a little bit of up and down. But the general trend is to increase. And even in the past 7 years, what we have seen is just a steady upward increase in the prevalence of marijuana use.
CAVANAUGH: And is there a similar increase in alcohol use?
PULIDO: We have also seen some changes in the alcohol use. Alcohol appears to be more stable. I think that somehow the culture around how young people perceive alcohol has not necessarily changed, but the way how they perceive marijuana is changing toward a perception where marijuana is not dangerous and it is okay to use.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And one of the major concerns is that many young people don't think there's much negative aspect involved in smoking pot. And I think perhaps that comes from what has been in the past a kind of overreaction to marijuana use. Would you agree with that?
PULIDO: Well, what I would think is that we're very good in terms of prevention efforts for other substances. For alcohol, for cigarette smoking. When it comes to marijuana use, there's not all that much. And think about youth. They're usually not going to their parents and asking for information. They're going to their peers, they are looking on TV, what is happening, and teenagers are very intelligent. They also do their research online. I think it's really important for teenagers to have access to information that gives them the pros and the cons of using as opposed to just what they see on TV and what their peers tell them.
CAVANAUGH: Many researchers actually do say from my reading that pot is less addictef than cigarettes and alcohol, and people that have experimented with marijuana when they're young, they grow up and they're perfectly fine now. So how do you convince people that there is a level of real danger here?
PULIDO: Well, I don't see my job as that of convincing people. I think that it's really important for people to be better informed. For those of us who are educators, for those of us who are parents and for the teenager himself or herself to really know what is the information out there, and then determine if this is a behavior that they want to engage. In my personal experience, working with individuals who eventually develop disorders, it is very difficult to treat marijuana abuse and dependence. It is difficult for the provider, and it's difficult for the individual. And it is really heartbreaking to see when a person is struggling with controlling that behavior that has become a habit. So I think that more information for people to make thirds requirement own decisions is really what we're aiming for.
CAVANAUGH: What do you think about the possible legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use? And how this affects this whole issue of adolescent use?
PULIDO: You know, any kind of event that would lead to more availability, access, or acceptance of a substance that is toxic to an adolescent, it is important for me because of the kind of work that I do. I can only imagine that with these changes in our political view about marijuana and other substances would be the same, that it would just allow more permissiveness. And this is just my very personal opinion as a mother, the message that we might be sending out there is that we think that this is safe. And we think that this is going to be helpful. And the truth is that -- for whom? For whom will it be helpful, for whom is it safe?
CAVANAUGH: I have read, and I just want to get your quick reaction to this. Some people think that if indeed marijuana would legal for adults but illegal for young people, that that prescription would actually make it more difficult for kids to get their hands on marijuana. What do you think about that?
PULIDO: If you work around individuals who use marijuana, both adolescents and adult, you would know that it's really easy for them to get access to these substance. And if they want to do it, they will find a way to obtain it.
CAVANAUGH: That's going to happen at the forum tonight?
PULIDO: We're going to have a discussion where we're just going to be coming in and a number of us and presenting information in terms of the kind of work that we do and what we have seen in terms of what marijuana does to teenagers. Like I said before, our goal is really to inform the community and for the community to make their own decisions, we'll be there to answer questions and of course our goal is to be able to have a more closer connection with the community so that we can start thinking about the questions they have and the concerns they have and guide our work as well.
CAVANAUGH: Tonight's forum will be held at Cherokee Point Elementary School in San Diego. Is runs from 6:00 to 8:00PM. We have more information on our website.