Monday, May 12, 2003

A lure for young teens,
marijuana can take over lives

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

At age 19, Ariel Hendricks has done a lot of hard living in a lot of suburban places.

During the past five years, she has bounced from Greenhills to Loveland to Fairfield to Forest Park, living with her mother, her father, a boyfriend, and a female friend who needed a roommate.

Now, Hendricks has a few things to say to people who think marijuana is mostly harmless. After getting deep into the drug at age 14, she wants people to know it took 13 months of residential treatment - in Milford - to break her addiction.

• Marijuana is harmless
• You can't get addicted to marijuana
• Marijuana won't hurt you - it's just a plant
• Marijuana doesn't make you lose control, it just makes you mellow
• Marijuana isn't as popular as other drugs like ecstasy
• There's not much parents or others can do to stop youths from experimenting.
Source: White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
"I had a lot of problems getting along with other girls," Hendricks said. "I wanted to be with the older, cuter guys. I wanted to be the party girl who would do anything, say anything."

Experts want parents to know that Hendrick's story is common for marijuana abusers in several ways. Those who start smoking pot in their early teens are much more likely to become addicted than those who start as young adults. And in addition to connections made at school, many teens find it easy to get drugs through older co-workers they meet at their part-time jobs.

Hendricks shared her story recently at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center as part of a "Marijuana and Kids" awareness campaign sponsored by the White House Office of National Drug Control and Policy.

The $150 million campaign, which pays mostly for anti-drug advertising plus materials for outreach programs, was launched in September. Cincinnati was the 15th city to host a roundtable-style discussion of marijuana issues.

Dr. Michael Spigarelli, a substance abuse expert at Children's who consults with the Hamilton County Juvenile Justice Center, said Hendricks' experience reflects many common trends among teen drug abusers.

Overall teen marijuana use has dipped slightly in the past year, but twice as many eighth-graders are trying pot now compared to a decade ago, according to the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse. That's important because nearly 12 percent of kids who start smoking pot at age 14 become addicted, compared to about 2 percent of those try it after reaching age 18, Spigarelli said.

• 50 percent of Cincinnati-area teens surveyed in 2000 said pot is "easy" to get.
• 37 percent of Ohio high school seniors say they used pot in the past year
• Treatment admission rates in Ohio for marijuana addiction jumped 220 percent from 1993 to 1999.
• Of 11,650 teens in Ohio treatment programs, 56 percent were there for marijuana addiction.
• The number of kids trying marijuana triples between 7th and 9th grades.
- Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati
Despite oft-made arguments to the contrary, considerable research has emerged in the past decade confirming that marijuana can be addictive - especially for those who start young, Spigarelli said.

Chemical effects on the brain have been detailed. Withdrawl symptoms have been identified. And drug treatment centers - which many people assume are filled with heroin or cocaine addicts - say most of their clients are there to kick marijuana dependency.

For teens who seek treatment, drug abuse rarely proves to be the first sign of trouble.

"Most of the time there is chaos in that person's life long before the drug use starts," Spigarelli said.

Surprisingly, for troubled kids, those early jobs that are supposed to teach responsibility often wind up making it easier for them to get high. Spigarelli said many teens he treats got their drugs through the people they met at part-time jobs.

"Think about the average job at the mall. It can be great for someone in high school but not necessarily for a 25-year-old. The reason (some young adults) are working there is that they have other issues."

Working at a mall provided access to pot for Hendricks. Her job connected her to a group of friends with minimal supervision, some as old as 24. "We smoked (pot) before, during and after work," she said. "It was very easy to get. Somebody always had it."

The lessons from the school DARE officer just made her more curious about drugs, she said.

After running away four times, getting a rash of zeros on school tests she blew off, and a flurry of failed outpatient treatment attempts, Hendricks got long-term treatment primarily because her mother tricked her into it.

"She said it would just be for a month, as an evaluation. It took me 13 months," she said.

Now, Hendricks works at Kids Helping Kids, the treatment program that helped her.

Dr. Richard Heyman, medical director of Kids Helping Kids and a longtime researcher of teen substance abuse, said he has talked to 500 teens with stories just like Hendricks'.

"Treatment works," Heyman said. "What breaks my heart is when I talk to parents who give up."


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