BY KEN LITTLE
The marijuana debate has been burning for more than 70 years.
Among questions surrounding the drug are its long-term affects on young people.
In a recent report, a member of Greene County Drug Court identified marijuana use among adolescents as a dangerous practice.
Dr. Stephen Loyd is associate chief of staff for education at the Mountain Home Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Johnson City, and an associate professor of medicine at the Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University.
Loyd recently did some research and issued his findings about marijuana use in an email to other Drug Court members.
"We are told that it [marijuana use] is safe and causes no harm. I think that you will see that is complete bunk, as if you didn't already know," Loyd wrote.
"Marijuana is addictive and has a week-long withdrawal syndrome -- not something most pro-legalization folks care to address."
Loyd also wrote of another fact that he indicated caught him off-guard.
"Marijuana is likely more harmful over the long haul for an exposed fetus than opiates are," his report stated.
"We have years of data now on how these kids, who were exposed to THC by [a] mom smoking marijuana while pregnant, perform in grade school," Loyd wrote.
'MEMORY, LEARNING IMPAIRED'
Marijuana is the most commonly-abused illicit drug, with 94 million Americans having tried it at least once, he wrote.
According to the National Institute of Justice's Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program, 57 percent of juvenile males arrested tested positive for marijuana, while 32 percent of juvenile females arrested tested positive.
"Memory and learning are significantly impaired, even with once-daily use," Loyd wrote.
There is positive news in the report, however, for those who stop use of the drug.
Even with long-term, heavy use, "if an individual quits marijuana use, some cognitive abilities may be recovered," Loyd wrote.
Those who use marijuana before age 17 have elevated rates of other drug use and other drug-related problems later in life, Loyd wrote.
Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. presides over Greene County's General Sessions Court and Juvenile Court, in addition to Drug Court.
Bailey agrees with Loyd's conclusions.
"I think that the marijuana of the 1960s and 1970s is totally different than today, in that research tells us that the marijuana today is much more potent and that we do not have data regarding the long-term effects of today's marijuana use," Bailey said in a email response to questions.
"Research today tells us that the brains of 14-to-24-year-olds are not developing as quickly today in regard to decision-making and coping skills as much as in the 1960s and 1970s, [and that] causes me even greater concern," he said.
The judge said the current generation of 14-to-24-year-olds "are not having to develop many of the independent living skills as quickly as those in the same age group had to develop in previous generations."
Bailey also agrees with Loyd that marjuana is a "gateway drug" that leads to abuse of other drugs.
"I frequently ask Drug Court clients and others who are using meth, opiates like oxycodone and roxycodone, crack, cocaine, etcetera -- what drug they first used," Bailey said.
"Almost all say alcohol and/or marijuana.
"Almost all of them say that they were high on marijuana when they were offered and took the 'other' drug, and then began using the other drug because they liked the high it gave them," Bailey said.
The marijuana-legalization question has also been raging for decades. About 20 states have already passed laws essentially decriminalizing marijuana use. In September, Colorado became the first state in the country to finalize and adopt rules for recreational marijuana sales.
"When I have asked addicts if marijuana should be legalized, almost every single one of them has said 'No,' because they believed it would lead to larger numbers of people using marijuana," Bailey said in the interview.
"I have seen an increase in marijuana use and an almost 'lackadaisical' attitude by many, including some parents, of 'Thank goodness, it's just marijuana.'
"I think that the fact some states have legalized it has caused some to think 'It must not be that bad -- it's now legal in some places,'" Bailey said.
Bailey said parents have also told him that marijuana use "is not like they are doing 'hard drugs' like crack and cocaine."
"All of this causes me great concern," the judge said.
"I believe that the use of marijuana leads to much more harm than good for the individual using it and for society as a whole.
"That is why I take such a firm stance against it," Bailey said.
FIRST DRUG THEY TRIED
Bailey estimates that about 75 percent of Drug Court participants "through the years have told me that marijuana was the first drug they tried."
The remaining 25 percent said they first used alcohol.
"I don't think that we have had any participants state that they started out using illegal prescription drugs or cocaine, etcetera," Bailey said.
"I do believe that young people are experimenting at a younger age," he said.
"I have had 5th and 6th graders in front of me for possession of marijuana. Their attitude toward marijuana has been that it is not a 'hard drug.'"
That attitude, Bailey said, "comes from the legalization of marijuana in some states along with the glamorization of marijuana in movies, music, and television."
Bailey said he recalls several occasions in court where parents "have actually made statements in front of their 11-, 12- or 13-year-old who has been charged with possession of marijuana that 'Marijuana is not that bad,' or 'It's not like they are doing "hard" drugs.'
"I firmly believe that if your child is experimenting with marijuana in middle school, that there is an excellent chance he or she will have a significant drug problem in their teenage years and beyond if it is not addressed," Bailey stressed.
KERSHAW: AGREES WITH LOYD
Greeneville attorney Ed Kershaw, a long-time volunteer member of the Drug Court panel, said in an email that Loyd's findings are insightful.
Kershaw, a native of Texas, said he was a member of his high school debate team in the 1980s.
"We would travel from school to school debating various topics. One of the frequent debate topics was the 'legalization of marijuana,' [and] we had to be able to argue both sides," Kershaw said.
"As I recall at that time, marijuana was considered to be psychologically addictive but not physically addictive. Studies said that people could not control their cravings, but they did not get sick when they quit use," Kershaw said.
"Dr. Loyd's study shows this to be a myth. It is physically addictive, according to his work," the attorney said.
"The other interesting part [of Loyd's study] deals with cancer," Kershaw added. "We constantly hear how cigarettes cause cancer but very little about marijuana.
"His piece shows marijuana to be more dangerous and likely to cause cancer than cigarettes," Kershaw said. "That fact really needs to be widely publicized and understood."
OTHER MEDICAL OPINIONS
Opinions in the medical community about the legalization of marijuana and its medical use vary widely, as do studies about the drug's effects.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN's chief medical correspondent, recently raised some eyebrows when he reversed his prior opinion on the medical use of marijuana.
At one time, Gupta wrote on http://www.cnn.com, he thought the benefit of medicinal marijuana use "was fairly unimpressive."
But further research changed his views.
Marijuana, Gupta wrote, "doesn't have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works."
Gupta aired his findings in a CNN documentary in August called "Weed."
But the nationally prominent physician added some cautionary words about marijuana use by young people.
"I do want to mention a concern that I think about as a father," Gupta wrote. "Young, developing brains are likely more susceptible to harm from marijuana than adult brains.
"Some recent studies suggest that regular use in teenage years leads to a permanent decrease in IQ. Other research hints at a possible heightened risk of developing psychosis," he wrote.
"Much in the same way I wouldn't let my own children drink alcohol, I wouldn't permit marijuana until they are adults.
"If they are adamant about trying marijuana, I will urge them to wait until they're in their mid-20s when their brains are fully developed," Gupta wrote.