As a physician who treats people for drug addiction, I am often asked by friends if they should vote to legalize marijuana. The reality is that many people in Maine already use marijuana regularly. In a “2015 Substance Use Trends in Maine” document, it was reported that, in 2013, more than 20% of high school students and young adults up to age 25 reported using marijuana within the past month. In 2013, 20% of high school users started before the age of 13.

This document also reported that “Perception of risk of harm from regular marijuana use decreased dramatically from 2009 to 2013 among high school students. In 2013, over half of students felt smoking marijuana on a regular basis was not risky. In 2012-13, nearly 90% of 18- to 25- year-olds also did not perceive smoking marijuana at least once per month as risky.”

Regarding the pros and cons of legalization, since Colorado legalized use of marijuana for recreational purposes in 2012, there was essentially no change in use in teenagers and it is unlikely that legalization in Maine would result in any meaningful change in the use in our state either.

So, the real question should not be whether or not we legalize marijuana in Maine but how to change the “culture” of marijuana (and any mind-altering drug) as safe and “normal” to use for recreational or self-medication purposes. In fact, particularly for teenagers, the safety of recreational use is poorly understood. Researchers worry that both the short- and long-term use of the drug may harm the body and mind. Marijuana’s continued popularity among teenagers raises particular concern because the drug might hinder the ongoing maturation of the adolescent brain.

Making matters worse, new growing techniques for producing marijuana have dramatically increased the drug’s potency. Some experts suggest that such high-octane weed is fueling a rise in cannabis addiction.

The drug’s long-term effects on body and mind are uncertain. In one study, it was found that people who began using pot earlier in life and used it most frequently over the years experienced an average decline of eight IQ points by the time they turned 38. By comparison, those who never smoked pot had an average increase of one IQ point by the same age.

So, given all the risks of marijuana use, shouldn’t we be asking how we can change the perception that marijuana (and all mind-altering drug) use is without risk and should be accepted as a good thing? Of course, we should. America is on a dangerous path when the easy solution to all problems is to pop a pill. We can do better than that.

Instead, we should be educating young people, in particular, that there are much better ways to enjoy life and to deal with life’s stresses. For instance:

There’s much we can do without drugs to treat distressful symptoms, especially of the moderate sort, where it all starts. There’s no quick fix, but we can use a variety of effective alternate approaches to build sound mental health, approaches that cause no harmful side effects and are more likely to get at the root cause of the symptoms.

 


Family and community — Human interactions and relationships are at the core of good health. At times we need to talk, cry, find ways to laugh and play, or ask friends and family for encouragement. We’re all vulnerable, and we all need support at different times. Reach out. Be with people one-on-one or in groups. This is better than any drug or medicine.

Meaningful work — Doing something you believe in can give meaning to everyday life. Working to change social, economic or other injustice can give life purpose and passion. Getting paid is important, but volunteer work also reaps enormous reward.

Talk therapy — Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” has proven an effective alternative to drugs and teaches lifelong coping skills. Patients treated with psychotherapy have fewer relapses than those treated with antidepressants. Find a therapist you respect, and who respects you.

Exercise — Our bodies are designed to move. Evidence shows regular physical activity is the best long-term treatment for depression and anxiety. It focuses and calms the mind, burns fat and excess energy, aids digestion and circulation, tones muscles, strengthens bone, improves heart and lung function, gets endorphins flowing and, best of all, makes you feel good.

Diet — Changes in diet over the past 50 years are an important factor in the rise in mental illness. Scientific studies clearly link attention deficit disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia to junk food and the absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals in industrialized diets.

Eat as though your body were a temple of the spirit. Eat more organic, raw, low on the food chain and as unprocessed as possible: more fruits and veggies and fewer refined foods. Turns out, when fruits and veggies comprise the majority of our diet, we get more energy from each calorie than when we eat a typical North American diet. With all that freed-up metabolic energy, you feel less tired and can cope better. You can do more and eat less.

Balance — Always make time for fun, friends, art, reading, dance, music, meditation, prayer, nature, journaling, yoga, sport — whatever it is that brings you peace and joy. These will strengthen your spirit and give your life balance and resiliency. Remaining engaged, whether in solo activity or community, is fundamental for sound mental health.

So, let’s get off the pill-popping mentality for solving our lives’ problems. Otherwise, we are selling our lives very, very short.

Please join me at the upcoming Community Conversation in St. George on Tuesday, November 1, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the St. George Fire Station to discuss this issue and what we can do about drug addiction damaging our communities. Please visit our website: www.knoxrecovery.org.