Listen Now

Surgeon General Sounds Alarm On Risk Of Marijuana Addiction And Harm

Aug 29, 2019
Originally published on August 29, 2019 6:14 pm

At a time when more than 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for either medical or recreational use, the U.S. surgeon general says no amount of the drug is safe for teens, young adults and pregnant women.

"While the perceived harm of marijuana is decreasing, the scary truth is that the actual potential for harm is increasing," Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Thursday during a press conference to announce the new advisory.

Surveys show that an increasing number of adolescents and pregnant women use the drug, which can be eaten, smoked or vaped.

But the surgeon general told NPR in an interview that many people are not aware of just how potent the drug can be.

"This ain't your mother's marijuana," he said. The THC concentration in marijuana plants has increased threefold between 1995 and 2014, according to the report, and concentrated products can contain up to 75% THC.

"The higher the THC delivery, the higher the risk," Adams said.

Young people who regularly use marijuana are "more likely to show a decline in IQ and school performance [and] are more apt to miss classes," Adams said. And frequent use of the drug can also impair a child's attention, memory and decision-making.

In addition, it can be habit-forming.

"Nearly 1 in 5 people who begin marijuana use during adolescence become addicted," Adams said. "That's scary to me as the dad of a 15-, a 13- and a 9-year-old."

Symptoms of marijuana dependency include "irritability, mood and sleep difficulties, decreased appetite, cravings, restlessness, and/or various forms of physical discomfort that peak within the first week after quitting and last up to 2 weeks," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And marijuana becomes addictive "when the person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life," according to NIDA.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced that President Trump is donating part of his salary this quarter — about $100,000 — to fund a digital media campaign to bring attention to the risks of marijuana use.

There's still a lot that's unknown about the risks of marijuana, and federal officials say they support more local and federal research. Just this week, the Drug Enforcement Administration said it would start to process pending applications for permission to cultivate the plant for research, as NPR reported.

The Trump administration is not the first to sound the alarm about the rising use of marijuana. At a time when surveys point to a significant increase in the number of pregnant women using the drug, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is educating women about the risks. "Marijuana and pregnancy don't mix," the group urges.

The organization published an infographic that points to the range of risks for women and their fetuses, including disruption of brain development, smaller birth weight, higher risk of premature birth, and behavioral problems in childhood.

Bottom line, the surgeon general wants to remind people that despite what's happening in states, federal law hasn't changed. And there is good reason for caution.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Marijuana is a dangerous drug - that is how Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, described it today in a press conference announcing a campaign to raise awareness of the risks of dependency and addiction. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports the new advisory focuses on risks to adolescents and pregnant women.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: At a time when more than 30 states have passed laws legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, more young people are smoking it. One survey found about 9 million teenagers and young adults report using marijuana within the last month. But the U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, says no amount of marijuana is safe for adolescents.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JEROME ADAMS: And while the perceived harm of marijuana is decreasing, the scary truth is that the actual potential for harm is increasing.

AUBREY: The drug is a lot more potent than it used to be. Since the mid-1990s, there's been at least a threefold increase in the concentration of THC in marijuana plants - that's the psychoactive component that leads to feelings of euphoria. But Adams says many people may not be aware.

ADAMS: This ain't your mother's marijuana.

AUBREY: The drug can be smoked, vaped or eaten, and the surgeon general's report finds some concentrated products can contain up to 75% THC. Adams says this is concerning.

ADAMS: Well, the science tells us the higher the THC delivery, the higher the risk.

AUBREY: Young people who regularly use marijuana are more likely to show a decline in IQ and school performance, Adams says, and frequent use of the drug can also impair a child's attention, memory and decision-making. There's also a risk of dependency and addiction.

ADAMS: Nearly 1 in 5 people who begin marijuana use during adolescence become addicted. That's scary to me as a dad of a 15-, a 13- and a 9-year-old.

AUBREY: Symptoms of dependency include irritability, mood and sleep difficulties that peak within the first week after trying to quit or not using the drug. And when a person can't stop using, even though it interferes or impairs with their performance at work or school, it's considered addiction. Elinore McCance-Katz is assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at HHS. She says marijuana use in adolescence is also linked to an increased risk of depression.

ELINORE MCCANCE-KATZ: When you look at the increasing trend for marijuana use and you see the association of increases in serious mental illness and major depression, it's quite concerning.

AUBREY: There is still a lot that is unknown about the effects of marijuana use in adolescents and adults, and federal officials say they support more local and federal research. Just this week, the Drug Enforcement Administration said it would start to process applications for permission to cultivate cannabis for research. Meanwhile, the CDC is investigating nearly 200 reported cases of severe lung damage among people who vape. Many of the young people who've been hospitalized with the condition acknowledged using THC. The surgeon general says he's concerned.

ADAMS: Reports are that many of these cases are correlated with THC or marijuana vaping. And so the best way to avoid lung injury is to avoid vaping because you don't know what you're getting. You don't know what's in these products.

AUBREY: To raise awareness of the risks of marijuana, Secretary Azar said today that President Trump has donated $100,000, a quarter of his annual government salary, to fund a digital campaign.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.