U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory: Marijuana Use and the Developing Brain

Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I am reposting this information from a link to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS.gov) provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

I, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, am emphasizing the importance of protecting our Nation from the health risks of marijuana use in adolescence and during pregnancy. Recent increases in access to marijuana and in its potency, along with misperceptions of safety of marijuana endanger our most precious resource, our nation’s youth.

Background

Marijuana, or cannabis, is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. It acts by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the brain to produce a variety of effects, including euphoria, intoxication, and memory and motor impairments. These same cannabinoid receptors are also critical for brain development. They are part of the endocannabinoid system, which impacts the formation of brain circuits important for decision making, mood and responding to stress.

Marijuana and its related products are widely available in multiple forms. These products can be eaten, drunk, smoked, and vaped. Marijuana contains varying levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component responsible for euphoria and intoxication, and cannabidiol (CBD). While CBD is not intoxicating and does not lead to addiction, its long-term effects are largely unknown, and most CBD products are untested and of uncertain purity.

Marijuana has changed over time. The marijuana available today is much stronger than previous versions. The THC concentration in commonly cultivated marijuana plants has increased three-fold between 1995 and 2014 (4% and 12% respectively). Marijuana available in dispensaries in some states has average concentrations of THC between 17.7% and 23.2%. Concentrated products, commonly known as dabs or waxes, are far more widely available to recreational users today and may contain between 23.7% and 75.9% THC.

The risks of physical dependence, addiction, and other negative consequences increase with exposure to high concentrations of THC and the younger the age of initiation. Higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis. Edible marijuana takes time to absorb and to produce its effects, increasing the risk of unintentional overdose, as well as accidental ingestion by children and adolescents. In addition, chronic users of marijuana with a high THC content are at risk for developing a condition known as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which is marked by severe cycles of nausea and vomiting.

This advisory is intended to raise awareness of the known and potential harms to developing brains, posed by the increasing availability of highly potent marijuana in multiple, concentrated forms. These harms are costly to individuals and to our society, impacting mental health and educational achievement and raising the risks of addiction and misuse of other substances.  Additionally, marijuana use remains illegal for youth under state law in all states; normalization of its use raises the potential for criminal consequences in this population. In addition to the health risks posed by marijuana use, sale or possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law notwithstanding some state laws to the contrary.

Marijuana Use during Pregnancy

Pregnant women use marijuana more than any other illicit drug. In a national survey, marijuana use in the past month among pregnant women doubled (3.4% to 7%) between 2002 and 2017. In a study conducted in a large health system, marijuana use rose by 69% (4.2% to 7.1%) between 2009 and 2016 among pregnant women. Alarmingly, many retail dispensaries recommend marijuana to pregnant women for morning sickness.

Marijuana use during pregnancy can affect the developing fetus.

  • THC can enter the fetal brain from the mother’s bloodstream.
  • It may disrupt the endocannabinoid system, which is important for a healthy pregnancy and fetal brain development.
  • Studies have shown that marijuana use in pregnancy is associated with adverse outcomes, including lower birth weight.
  • The Colorado Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System reported that maternal marijuana use was associated with a 50% increased risk of low birth weight regardless of maternal age, race, ethnicity, education, and tobacco use.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists holds that “[w]omen who are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy should be encouraged to discontinue marijuana use. Women reporting marijuana use should be counseled about concerns regarding potential adverse health consequences of continued use during pregnancy”. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that “…it is important to advise all adolescents and young women that if they become pregnant, marijuana should not be used during pregnancy.”

Maternal marijuana use may still be dangerous to the baby after birth. THC has been found in breast milk for up to six days after the last recorded use. It may affect the newborn’s brain development and result in hyperactivity, poor cognitive function, and other long-term consequences. Additionally, marijuana smoke contains many of the same harmful components as tobacco smoke. No one should smoke marijuana or tobacco around a baby.

Marijuana Use during Adolescence

Marijuana is also commonly used by adolescents, second only to alcohol. In 2017, approximately 9.2 million youth aged 12 to 25 reported marijuana use in the past month and 29% more young adults aged 18-25 started using marijuana. In addition, high school students’ perception of the harm from regular marijuana use has been steadily declining over the last decade. During this same period, a number of states have legalized adult use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, while it remains illegal under federal law. The legalization movement may be impacting youth perception of harm from marijuana. 

The human brain continues to develop from before birth into the mid-20s and is vulnerable to the effects of addictive substances. Frequent marijuana use during adolescence is associated with:

  • Changes in the areas of the brain involved in attention, memory, decision-making, and motivation. Deficits in attention and memory have been detected in marijuana-using teens even after a month of abstinence.
  • Impaired learning in adolescents. Chronic use is linked to declines in IQ, school performance that jeopardizes professional and social achievements, and life satisfaction.
  • Increased rates of school absence and drop-out, as well as suicide attempts.

Risk for and early onset of psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. The risk for psychotic disorders increases with frequency of use, potency of the marijuana product, and as the age at first use decreases. 

  • Other substance use. In 2017, teens 12-17 reporting frequent use of marijuana showed a 130% greater likelihood of misusing opioids.

Marijuana’s increasingly widespread availability in multiple and highly potent forms, coupled with a false and dangerous perception of safety among youth, merits a nationwide call to action. 

You Can Take Action

No amount of marijuana use during pregnancy or adolescence is known to be safe. Until and unless more is known about the long-term impact, the safest choice for pregnant women and adolescents is not to use marijuana.  Pregnant women and youth–and those who love them–need the facts and resources to support healthy decisions. It is critical to educate women and youth, as well as family members, school officials, state and local leaders, and health professionals, about the risks of marijuana, particularly as more states contemplate legalization.

Science-based messaging campaigns and targeted prevention programming are urgently needed to ensure that risks are clearly communicated and amplified by local, state, and national organizations. Clinicians can help by asking about marijuana use, informing mothers-to-be, new mothers, young people, and those vulnerable to psychotic disorders, of the risks. Clinicians can also prescribe safe, effective, and FDA-approved treatments for nausea, depression, and pain during pregnancy. Further research is needed to understand all the impacts of THC on the developing brain, but we know enough now to warrant concern and action. Everyone has a role in protecting our young people from the risks of marijuana.

The Worst Man-Made Epidemic in History

The following is comprised of excerpts from Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. I want to praise Quinones for this seminal work. Personally, it has defined for me the very nightmare I, and countless others, have lived, each to his or her own level, after discovering the morphine molecule through seemingly acceptable pain medications like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin. You can purchase a copy of Dreamland here: Dreamland

AS HEROIN AND OXYCONTIN addiction consumed the children of America’s white middle class, parents hid the truth and fought alone. Quietly. Friends and neighbors who knew shunned them. “When your kid’s dying from a brain tumor or leukemia, the whole community shows up,” said a mother of two addicts. “They bring casseroles. They pray for you. They send you cards. When your kid’s on heroin, you don’t hear from anybody, until  they die. Then everybody comes and they don’t know what to say.”

These parents made avoidable mistakes, and when a son died or entered rehab for the fourth time, they again hid the truth, believing themselves alone, which they were as long as they kept silent. This pervasive lie was easily swallowed. It often lay buried beneath lush lawns, shiny SUVs, and the bedrooms of kids who lacked for nothing. It was easier to swallow, too, because some of these new addicts were high school athletes – the charismatic golden youth of these towns. Athletes opened the door for other students who figured that if cool jocks were using pills, how bad could it be?

One addict was Carter, from one of of California’s wealthiest communities, the son of a banker. Carter had been a high school star in football and baseball. With no break from sports during the year, he battled injuries that never healed. A doctor prescribed Vicodin for him, with no warning on what Vicodin contained, or suggestions for how it should be used. Sports were king in Carter’s town. It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices in life, much less for the love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. Sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, “You need grades so you can play. That was the vibe we got,” said Carter.

Many new athlete-addicts were not from poor towns where sports might be a ticket out for a lucky few. The places where opiate addiction settled hard were often middle- and upper-class. Parents were surgeons and developers and lawyers who provided their kids with everything. Yet sports were as much a narcotic for these communities as they were to any ghetto. Love of learning seemed absent, while their school weight rooms were palatial things, and in many of them pain pills were quietly commonplace. Just as opiates provided doctors with a solution to chronic-pain patients, Vicodin and Percocet provided coaches with the ultimate tool to get kids playing again.

Carter’s coach told him stories of players years before who were gulping down Vicodin before practices and games. “In my town, the stands were always filled. You wanted to be the hero. So you think, ‘I can’t look weak. I gotta push myself.’ I would get these small injuries. The coaches wouldn’t pay any attention. I taught myself to not pay attention to any injuries.” Most athletes on every team on which Carter played used pills, for injury or recreation. Soon Carter grew addicted to Vicodin, and then to OxyContin. From there, as a student athlete at a Division I university, he began using heroin.

Football players were seen as symbols of this American epidemic. Their elevated status on campus left some of them unaffected by consequences. Carter was caught selling pills and was told not to do it again. Above all, though, players were in constant pain and were expected to play with it. If opiates were now for chronic pain, well, football players endured more chronic pain than most. Necks, thighs, and ankles ached all season. Medicating injuries to get athletes playing through the pain was nothing new. But as oxycodone and hydrocodone became the go-to treatment for chronic pain, organized sports – and football in particular – opened as a virtual gateway to opiate addiction in many schools. Thus, with the epidemic emerged the figure of the heroin-addicted football player. Though, of course, few wanted to talk too much about that.

By 2008, when Jo Anna Krohn’s son died, these kinds of delusions had been accepted for almost a decade in places like Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and other cities that had for that same decade been the drivers and beneficiaries of the greatest boom in the history of U.S. consumer spending. But it was in beat-down Portsmouth, Ohio, where one mother had the gumption to own the truth and say something about it.

***

ACROSS PORTSMOUTH, AT THE Counseling Center, Ed Hughes thought silence was a huge part of the story. Opiates had exploded all those plans Hughes had in the mid-1990s to consolidate the Counseling Center’s operations and focus on improving its internal workings. The center opened years before in a small house. By 1992 it began residential treatment with 16 beds. This quickly increased to 150 beds, with a huge waiting list, and a staff of close to 200. It moved its outpatient center into an abandoned three-story school due entirely to the swarms of new opiate addicts.

“We’ve never seen anything move this fast,” said Hughes. A decade and a half in, Ed Hughes was still waiting for the arc of addicted clients to plateau and curve downward. Kids were coming to the center from across Ohio. Many, said Hughes, grew up coddled, bored, and unprepared for life’s hazards and difficulties. They’d grown up amid the consumerist boom that began in the mid 1990s. Hughes believed parenting was changing as well. “Spoiled rich kid” syndrome seeped into America’s middle class. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments – all as they had less time for their kids.

“You only develop self-esteem one way, and that’s through accomplishment,” Hughes said. “You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. You see twenty-somethings: They have a nice car, money in their pocket, and they got a cell phone… a big-screen TV. I ask them, ‘Where the hell did all that stuff come from? You’re a student.’ ‘My mom and dad gave it to me.’ And you put opiate addiction in the middle of that?” Hughes added, “Then the third leg of the stool is the fifteen-year-old brain.”

Hughes saw this all the time: Adult drug users incapable of making mature choices. This happened because opiates stunted the part of their brain controlling rational action. ¹ “We’ve got twenty-five- to thirty-year-old, opiate-addicted people who are going on fifteen. Their behavior, the way their brain works, is like an adolescent,” said Hughes. “It’s like the drug came in there and overwhelmed that brain chemistry, and the front of the brain did not develop.” He added, “The front of the brain has to develop through mistakes. But the first reaction to the addicted person is to head back to the family: ‘Will you rescue me?’ Whatever the person’s rescued from, there’s no learning. There’s no experiences, no frontal brain development. They’re doing well and then some idea comes into their head and they’re off a cliff. It may not be a decision to use [drugs]. Most relapse comes not from the craving for the drug. It comes from this whole other level of unmanageability, putting myself in compromising situations, or being dishonest, being lazy – being a fifteen-year-old.”

***

FIVE YEARS AFTER PORTSMOUTH found itself swept up in a national epidemic, the victims of America’s opiate scourge had emerged from the shadows and the silence. They were everywhere now. Heroin had traveled a long way from the back alleys of New York City and William Burrough’s Junky. The town of Simi Valley agonized over a spate of opiate overdose deaths – eleven in a single year. Simi Valley, conservative and religious, has long been an enclave for cops. Many LAPD officers live in the town. Simi’s vice mayor at the time was a Los Angeles police officer. So for years Simi was one of America’s safest towns. According to the crime statistics, it still is. But with pills everywhere and heroin sold in high schools, its kids were now also dying of dope. Simi youths clogged the methadone clinic. Nearby, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, and Santa Clarita told similar stories. Low crime and high fatal overdoses was the new American paradigm.

Susan Klimuski, whose son Austin died from a heroin overdose, formed a coalition to fight back. It was called Not One More. It received support from city council and the town’s retail core. Yet these were times when heroin was still invisible, conveniently hidden away, at least to anyone who wasn’t a junkie, or a parent of one. Then, on Super Bowl Sunday 2014, America awoke to the news that one of its finest actors was dead. Philip Seymour Hoffman, forty-six, was found that morning in his Greenwich Village apartment, a syringe in his arm and powder heroin in packets branded with the Ace of Spades near his corpse. Blood tests showed he had heroin in his system, combined with cocaine, amphetamine, and benzodiazepine. The Oscar-winning actor – a father of three- had checked into rehab the previous May for ten days, and then, pronouncing himself sober again, left to resume a hectic film schedule. This death hit me right between the eyes. I was a die-hard fan of Hoffman’s acting. He had a heroin habit in college (twenty years ago), but managed to get clean. At least for two decades. Hoffman’s death awoke America to the opiate epidemic.

Within days of covering the story of Hoffman’s death, media outlets from coast to coast discovered that thousands of people were dying. Heroin abuse, the news reports insisted, was surging. Almost all the new heroin addicts were hooked first on prescription painkillers. It was not just the pain, however. This scourge was connected to the conflation of bigger forces: of economics, of aggressive prescription drug marketing, of poverty and prosperity. But this was tough to articulate in four-minute interviews, and a lot of it got lost in the media’s rush to discover and report the new plague. Attorney General Eric Holder described an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” and called on police and paramedics to carry naloxone, an effective antidote to opiate overdose. The problem also prompted Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A. to issue a report in November 2016 on alcohol, drugs and health. This is the most comprehensive health crisis report issued by a surgeon general since cigarette smoking. You can read a PDF of the entire report here.

Two decades since the evolving pain revolution,² a consensus emerged that opiates are not helpful for some varieties of chronic pain, including back pain, migraines, and fibromyalgia. In fact, it was finally decided that opiate use is risky. Many clinics and physicians developed policies against using opiates for chronic non-cancer pain. One 2007 survey of studies of back pain and opiates found that “use disorders” were common among patients, and “aberrant” use behavior occurred in up to 24 percent of the cases. It was unclear whether opiates had a positive effect on back pain in the long term. Personally, I have found that opiates do nothing more than create a euphoria that tends to distract me from the pain for a few hours, only to ebb, thus requiring more opiates. By the end of the 2000s, it was already common for people to go from abusing opiate painkillers to a heroin habit. Purdue Pharma, the inventor of OxyContin (who paid a $635.5 million fine for falsely claiming their formulation of the drug oxycodone in time-released pills was far less addictive) recognized this, and in 2010 they reformulated OxyContin with an abuse deterrent, supposedly making the drug even harder to deconstruct and inject.

Unfortunately, by this time, heroin had spread to most corners of the country because the rising sea level of opiates flowed there first. “What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont as now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” said Governor Shumlin. What made New York City the dominant heroin market for much of the twentieth century – its vast number of addicts, and its immigrants from poppy-rich regions of the globe – was now true of most of America. Most of the country’s heroin was coming from Mexico, through the Southwest, trucked into New York. The entrepreneurial Xalisco brothers from Nayarit, Mexico, devised a system for selling heroin across the United States that resembles pizza delivery. An addict calls and places an order, and an operator directs him to an intersection or parking lot. The dealer carries balloons of heroin in his mouth. He simply spits out what the addict ordered. If the cops move on the dealer, he washes the balloons down his throat with a swig from a nearby bottle of water. No evidence, no arrest. The dealers have also been known to deliver to the door for “clients” that are home-bound due to illness or disability.

What started as a concern among physicians for a solution to chronic pain was hijacked by greedy Big Pharma, eventually morphing into nationwide heroin use and addiction resulting from the medical community and the government tightened the reins on prescriptions. Of course, whenever drugs are involved, there is always someone at the ready to provide a system of delivery to dope-sick addicts and chronic pain sufferers hankering for release.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

¹ Adolescence and young adulthood is a period of continued brain growth and change. The frontal lobes, key to executive functioning, such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature. Age is a risk factor that is associated with the onset of drug use in adolescence and young adulthood. Adolescence is a developmental period associated with the highest risk for developing a substance use disorder.

² During the 1990s changes in attitudes and techniques in pain treatment were coming quickly. In 1996, the president of the American Pain Society, Dr. James Campbell, proposed that pain should be assessed in the same manner as other vital signs. They trademarked the slogan, “Pain: The Fifth Vital Sign.” This led to the 0-10 pain intensity scale now prevalent in every ER and doctor’s office in America. Essentially, doctors were finally given more power in prescribing opiates to patients suffering from chronic pain who were not cancer patients.

References

Quinones, Sam. (2015). Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press

Winters, K. and Arria, K. (2011). “Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs.” The Prevention Researcher, 18(2), 21–24.

Preface to The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health

Before I assumed my position as U.S. Surgeon General, I stopped by the hospital where I had worked since my residency training to say goodbye to my colleagues. I wanted to thank them, especially the nurses, whose kindness and guidance had helped me on countless occasions. The nurses had one parting request for me. If you can only do one thing as Surgeon General, they said, “Please do something about the addiction crisis in America.”

I have not forgotten their words. As I have traveled across our extraordinary nation, meeting people struggling with substance use disorders and their families, I have come to appreciate even more deeply something I recognized through my own experience in patient care: that substance use disorders represent one of the most pressing public health crises of our time. Whether it is the rapid rise of prescription opioid addiction or the longstanding challenge of alcohol dependence, substance misuse and substance use disorders can—and do— prevent people from living healthy and productive lives. And, just as importantly, they have profound effects on families, friends, and entire communities.

I recognize there is no single solution. We need more policies and programs that increase access to proven treatment modalities. We need to invest more in expanding the scientific evidence base for prevention, treatment, and recovery. We also need a cultural shift in how we think about addiction. For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing. This unfortunate stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help. It has also made it more challenging to marshal the necessary investments in prevention and treatment. We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw – it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

I am proud to release The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. As the first ever Surgeon General’s Report on this important topic, this Report aims to shift the way our society thinks about substance misuse and substance use disorders while defining actions we can take to prevent and treat these conditions.

Over the past few decades, we have built a robust evidence base on this subject. We now know that there is a neurobiological basis for substance use disorders with potential for both recovery and recurrence. We have evidence-based interventions that prevent harmful substance use and related problems, particularly when started early. We also have proven interventions for treating substance use disorders, often involving a combination of medication, counseling, and social support. Additionally, we have learned that recovery has many pathways that should be tailored to fit the unique cultural values and psychological and behavioral health needs of each individual. As Surgeon General, I care deeply about the health and well-being of all who are affected by substance misuse and substance use disorders.

This Report offers a way forward through a public health approach that is firmly grounded in the best available science. Recognizing that we all have a role to play, the Report contains suggested actions that are intended for parents, families, educators, health care professionals, public policy makers, researchers, and all community members.

Above all, we can never forget that the faces of substance use disorders are real people. They are a beloved family member, a friend, a colleague, and ourselves. Despite the significant work that remains ahead of us, there are reasons to be hopeful. I find hope in the people I have met in recovery all across America who are now helping others with substance use disorders find their way. I draw strength from the communities I have visited that are coming together to work on prevention initiatives and to connect more people to treatment. And I am inspired by the countless family members who have lost loved ones to addiction and who have transformed their pain into a passion for helping others. These individuals and communities are rays of hope. It is now our collective duty to bring such light to all corners of our country.

How we respond to this crisis is a moral test for America. Are we a nation willing to take on an epidemic that is causing great human suffering and economic loss? Are we able to live up to that most fundamental obligation we have as human beings: to care for one another?

Fifty years ago, the landmark Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking began a half century of work to end the tobacco epidemic and saved millions of lives. With The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, I am issuing a new call to action to end the public health crisis of addiction. Please join me in taking the actions outlined in this Report and in helping ensure that all Americans can lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.B.A., Vice Admiral, U.S. Public Health Service, Surgeon General

To read The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health click on the following link: https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/surgeon-generals-report.pdf