Matthew fell in love for the first time when he was 12 years old. The object of his affection, however, was not a person. During a hotel stay, Matthew went for a dip in a hot tub, where people were smoking marijuana. They shared with Matthew, and he got high for the first time. He was immediately hooked.
“After that I started to get high on a regular basis,” says Matthew, who is now 19. “I would rob from my family to get money to buy marijuana. I would steal from my friends. I would do whatever it took to get high. All I wanted to do was smoke weed.”
“Weed” is one of the street names for marijuana, a mind-altering drug made from the hemp plant. It’s also the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. For Matthew, smoking marijuana led to his getting addicted to the drug. Abusing marijuana can also impair a person’s ability to learn. The drug has been linked to cancer as well. In addition, it’s against the law to smoke marijuana, meaning that abusers face legal consequences if they are caught possessing, smoking, or selling the drug.
For many years, marijuana had a reputation of being safer to use than other street drugs, like cocaine and heroin. The truth is that marijuana is very addictive. “Addiction is [the desire] to do any behavior over and over again, despite adverse consequences,” says Dr. James Huysman, a clinical social worker, psychologist, and addiction specialist in Miami, Florida.
This was certainly the case for Matthew. After he was hooked, he started buying marijuana in large quantities to sell at school. He would skip classes to sell at the mall. Eventually he gave up going to school completely because, as he says, he just “stopped caring.” Matthew also withdrew from family and friends who cared about him. All he wanted to do was get high, and he resented anything that stood in the way of that desire.
“Marijuana use can create amotivational syndrome: lack of success and a lack of goals and feeling bad about yourself,” Huysman says. “Once the high ends, you get lower and feel more depressed, so you have to use it again or use another drug.”
This is why marijuana is known as a gateway drug: Using it may lead to abuse of other drugs, like crack, heroin, or methamphetamines. Matthew did try other drugs, but marijuana remained his drug of choice. At the time, Matthew’s mom was struggling with her own drug addiction, so it was up to his dad to intervene.
Matthew’s father put his son in an outpatient treatment program, where he underwent counseling but still lived at home. It helped for a while, but Matthew’s addiction was too strong. He got caught trying to cheat on a urine test designed to see if he had drugs in his body.
“That drew the line for my dad,” Matthew says. “He put me in a rehab program, where I had to live at a facility.” But that program, designed for users ages 12 to 18, still didn’t get Matthew to give up drugs. During rehab, the staff threw a prom for the kids who were graduating. Matthew and his roommate snuck alcohol into the dance—and never got caught by counselors.
“When I was ready to leave the program, I started to feel guilty,” Matthew says. “My dad was saying how proud of me he was that I had been clean for six months—but I hadn’t been clean. That’s the first time I realized I wanted to stop getting high and change my life.” Matthew told his family the truth. Since then, he has been attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, taking advantage of an online support network for addicts in recovery called In the Rooms, and sharing his story with others.
So how does marijuana addiction happen? According to Huysman, a drug addiction has three components: biological, psychological, and social. If your family has a genetic predisposition for addiction, you may be at a higher risk for developing an addiction yourself.
Psychologically, marijuana can be a temporary fix for anxiety, low self-esteem, and fear. Socially, teens may use marijuana to connect to their peers. “Smoking marijuana made me feel comfortable and made me feel like I had a purpose,” Matthew says. “I did it because I wanted to fit in with people. Later, when I got clean, I realized I did it because I felt uncomfortable in my own skin.”
Unfortunately, smoking marijuana can become a crutch that gets in the way of confronting your own issues. “It can stunt emotional growth,” Huysman says. “If you are 25 and you started smoking marijuana when you were 14, you’ll still have the emotional maturity of a 14-year-old.”
Besides being addictive, marijuana can cause other serious health issues. Regularly smoking marijuana can lead to similar problems as smoking cigarettes: difficulty breathing, chronic bronchitis, frequent coughing, and even cancer. In fact, marijuana smokers absorb three to five times more poisonous carbon monoxide than tobacco smokers do.
Abusing marijuana can also make it harder for you to learn. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the short-term effects of marijuana use include difficulty learning, thinking, retaining information, and problem solving. These effects can continue for more than 24 hours after smoking.
How does this happen? The active ingredient in marijuana is called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short. When THC enters your body, it suppresses neurons in the portion of your brain where information is processed. In the 1970s, the THC content in most marijuana was less than 2 percent. Now, the drug’s THC content is often as high as 20 percent, making it more potent.
Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid health problems caused by smoking marijuana, you could still get in trouble with the law. Matthew was arrested twice on marijuana charges and although he avoided going to jail, he was put on probation for his offenses.
Matthew is lucky to have survived his addiction, and he is grateful to have a second chance at life without drugs. “I really enjoy my life today,” he says. “[The members of Narcotics Anonymous] are able to work the program, find out who we are, and why we do the stuff we do. Going to a meeting and helping others is a better high than I ever got from any drug.”
*Choices did not print Matthew’s last name to protect his privacy.