Red Ribbon Week: Marijuana a risky gateway drug, experts say
Benji Johnson, 62, rolls a marijuana cigarette in her home in Laguna Woods, Calif. She says she smokes to releive discomfort from breast cancer chemotherapy treatment and to lessen arthritis pain in her back. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT).
After a year of hiding from authorities, Mike McNeil showed up Wednesday at the Muscogee County Adult Felony Drug Court. He said he had stayed away to see the birth of his daughter, and now he was ready to quit smoking weed.
“I started smoking marijuana at 14 and my life went downhill after that,” he later said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “I had never been in trouble before then, never been arrested, never suspended from school, and then after that I got an armed robbery charge, running with the wrong crowd.”
McNeil said his daughter’s birth made him reflect on his life and led him to turn himself in to his caseworker last week.
“Being in the room watching (my girlfriend) have contractions and witnessing my baby born, it just changed my life,” he said. “I’m not necessarily living for myself anymore and everything is about my daughter right now.”
McNeil, 24, is just one example of a life derailed by marijuana. The overcrowded Muscogee County Jail is full of people with marijuana-related charges, for possession and intent to sell.
While the drug is being legalized in some states for medicinal and, in some cases, recreational purposes, there are many experts who still consider it the path to a life of ruin. At the same time, the rate of marijuana use among teens has increased in recent years, with 46 percent experimenting with the drug before graduating from high school, a recent study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse revealed.
“Although current use among U.S., teens has dropped dramatically in the past decade to a prevalence of about 15 percent in 2011, this decline has stalled during the past several years,” the report said, using data from the Monitoring the Future survey, which has been tracking drug use among teens since 1975.
“Still, the World Health Organization ranks the United States first among 17 European and North American countries for prevalence of marijuana use. And more users start every day. In 2010, an estimated 2.4 million Americans used marijuana for the first time; greater than one-half were under age 18.”
A gateway drug
Dr. Andrew Cox, a licensed addiction counselor who works with Muscogee County’s adult felony drug court as a program and clinical evaluator, keeps data on the efficacy of the program and determines who is eligible for the drug court and the various treatments.
“Invariably, most of the people that we see in drug court started out with marijuana,” he said. “They started anywhere from 12 to 14 years of age, and gradually they progressed to other kinds of drugs.”
He said most of the people in the program are polysubstance abusers, which means they use at least two and, most likely, more than three substances in different combinations. Marijuana is usually part of the equation.
“Of course, there is a whole debate about whether marijuana is what they call ‘a gateway drug,'” he said. “There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it is associated with leading to other more severe types of drug use.
“I think there are reasons for that,” he added. “(Marijuana users) are more likely to come in contact with people who use drugs and more likely to experiment with other drugs.”
Chief Public Defender Thomas Moffett Flournoy III said the drug also leads to other crimes, which can be devastating to the community.
“We get pretty bad murder cases involving people selling marijuana and people getting into disputes about it,” he said. “Sometimes people think marijuana is not a big deal, but sometimes it turns into a huge deal. We’ve had quite a few murder cases the past two years where marijuana had something to do with the case. It either was a buy that went bad or somebody decided to rob somebody who was selling marijuana.”
McNeil, a native of Smyrna, Ga., said he was introduced to marijuana in middle school while hanging with an older crowd. He said he never progressed to other drugs, but he has spent $300 a week supporting his weed habit. He’s been in and out of the legal system over the years. His last arrest was in 2012 for theft by taking a motor vehicle. Instead of going to prison, he was placed in the drug court program, an intervention program that targets addicts with high needs.
Over the years, some of his friends excelled, while he remained trapped in a cycle of drug dependence.
“It starts to become an every day part of your life,” said McNeil, who has coached football and had aspirations to play professionally. “There were times I couldn’t even eat unless I smoked some weed and I had to smoke weed to go to sleep.”
Georgia’s medicinal bill
Marijuana is a dry, shredded combination of leaves, flowers, stems and seeds from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. It also comes in a more concentrated form called hashish and as a sticky black liquid called hash oil. The mind-altering chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia with a doctor’s recommendation. In Colorado and Washington state, it is now also legal for recreational use. Alaska and Oregon will vote on similar measures in November.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but in 2013 the Justice Department announced that it would not criminally prosecute recreational marijuana users in states where the drug is legal.
In Georgia, marijuana is still unlawful. But the Georgia General Assembly considered a bill earlier this year that could have legalized a particular strain of marijuana delivered orally for the treatment of cancer, glaucoma and seizures.
The bill passed in the House, but it stalled in the Senate on the final day of the legislative session.
Gov. Nathan Deal said he would work with state agencies to see what could be done to make the treatment available.
Legislators say the bill was not intended to encourage or sanction recreational use. However, it does make Georgia part of the national debate about the legalization of various forms of the drug.
Judge Frank J. Jordan Jr. launched the Muscogee County Adult Felony Drug Court in 2007 and still presides over it today. He said he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with marijuana if it’s used for medicinal purposes.
“But to just quote ‘legalize marijuana’ and make it like a traffic ticket or something like that, it opens the younger population to the drug culture,” he said. “Generally the hardest demographic group that we have to deal with are the 18- to 25-year-olds. They think they can quit whenever they want to and they experiment with it. But, unfortunately, they can’t quit when they get on meth, and we’re seeing a rise in prescription drugs and we’re seeing a rise in synthetic marijuana.
“The hard part about synthetic marijuana is that the drug testing equipment is specific for marijuana, and if they change the molecular makeup, they get the same high but it doesn’t show up on drug tests.”
Dayna Solomon, drug court coordinator for the program, said the court now has the ability to test for Synthetic cannabinoids, also known as spice, K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk and Moon Rocks. And people need to be aware of the risks associated with marijuana, she said.
“Stories are put out there that marijuana isn’t chemically addictive and doesn’t have addictive qualities, so everybody thinks it’s not a big deal,” Solomon said. “But it is chemically addictive. It’s behaviorally addictive. It is a drug and it is harmful.”
On the other side of the debate is an organization called Peachtree NORML, which has been pushing for “the legalization of marijuana for responsible adult use” in Georgia.
“We’re against teen use, obviously, as everyone else. But we feel like it should be regulated something similar to alcohol,” said Sharon Ravert, the group’s executive director. “The main reason that I personally got involved with it is I feel like marijuana prohibition is not working and that it is harming our society more than the drug itself and that we need to re-educate ourselves and figure out a better approach to keeping marijuana out of young people’s hands.”
RED RIBBON WEEK
Today: The impact marijuana has had on the Columbus community and what is being done through the Muscogee County Felony Drug Court to combat the problem.
Monday: Marijuana and the teen brain. What are the effects? What problems does it lead to?
Tuesday: Schools and marijuana. What are the strategies for educating students about the drug and dealing with use at school?
Wednesday: Medical marijuana. What are the different strains? And how can they be used for medical purposes? What strain is being proposed for Georgia and why?
Thursday: Law enforcement and marijuana. What are the legal consequences for using the drug? We’ll look at bonds and prison sentences for both misdemeanors and felonies.
Friday: Marijuana and driving. How does it affect driving ability? What are the risks and legal consequences for driving while high?
ABOUT RED RIBBON WEEK
On Feb. 7, 1985, DEA Special Agent Enriqué “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped, brutally tortured and murdered by Mexican drug traffickers. His tragic death opened the eyes of many Americans to the dangers of drugs and the international scope of the drug trade.
Shortly afterward, his high school friend Henry Lozano and Congressman Duncan Hunter launched “Camarena Clubs” in Camerena’s hometown of Calexico, Calif.
Hundreds of club members pledged to lead drug-free lives and delivered the pledges to first lady Nancy Reagan at a national conference of parents combating youth drug use. Several state parent organizations then called on community groups to wear red ribbons during the last week of October as a symbol of their drug-free commitment.
In 1988, the National Family Partnership coordinated the first National Red Ribbon Week with President and Mrs. Reagan serving as honorary chairpersons.
Today, Red Ribbon Week is the nation’s oldest and largest drug prevention program reaching millions of Americans during the last week of October every year. By wearing red ribbons and participating in community anti-drug events, young people pledge to live a drug-free life and pay tribute to Kiki Camarena.