CONTACT Denver teens face greater pressure to use - Dr. Christian Thurstone

There’s always one slide in the presentations I give about marijuana’s effects on the teen brain that makes my young audiences scoff — and a talk I gave earlier this week at Denver’s East High School was no exception. The slide illustrates what science has confirmed many times: young people have a tendency to overestimate how many of their peers use drugs.

According to the most recent data collected by the Healthy Kids Colorado survey, 71 percent of the Denver County high school students surveyed reported they had not used marijuana in the previous month, while 29 percent reported they had. Scientists believe the anonymous, confidential survey’s results are an accurate reflection of the teens’ behavior.

Students at East High School organized two assemblies for the entire student body to help their classmates gain and maintain this important perspective: there are plenty of young people who know they have much better things to do than use drugs. At the same time, several of the young people who organized the all-school, student meetings recognize what I do: a 29 percent use rate is high — and Denver teens face mounting pressures to use marijuana.

Consider: Denver’s average use rate among its high school students is higher than the 22 percent average rate reported by high schoolers across the state. Denver County is included in that state average — which means there’s an even greater spread between the high school use rates in Denver County and the use rates among students in high schools outside the county. Also worth noting is that Denver County is home to 60 percent of all of the dispensaries in Colorado — and more than 100 communities outside of Denver County have banned marijuana sales.

Students attending the East High School assembly asked typical questions of the event’s speakers, who also included Denver County Judge Andre Rudolph, Special Agent Michael Moore of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Denver High School office manager Sharon McCutcheon. While I focused on the health ramifications of adolescent marijuana use — such as increased risk of developing psychosis, permanent loss of IQ by middle age and other cognitive deficits — Judge Rudolph and Agent Moore reminded our young listeners of what can happen when their drug use spirals out of control and lands them in trouble with the law.

It was Ms. McCutcheon’s story that quieted the often chattery auditorium. She quietly, candidly and bravely recounted her own longstanding struggle with drug abuse — a battle that started when she was in high school; ushered her from alcohol and marijuana to her “drug of choice, meth;” and resulted in arrest and many other negative, life-altering consequences. All the while, she listened to what the substances told her — that she was smarter when she was high. She was funnier. She was cooler to be around. Never mind the hair loss, the rotting teeth, the dramatic weight loss and the abuse she was enduring at the hands of dealers and others. Never mind all of the real problems drugs helped her mask and ignore while she was high.

Ms. McCutcheon closed by reminding the students that they “are treasures,” that they can find support — and that her door is always open to them.

Even after the speakers’ remarks, several students posed questions that are much like those asked by people far older than they are. They wanted to hear that this drug is safer than that one, and that that drug is all right to use because it won’t lead to use of any other. Those are fallacies, of course — and Agent Moore addressed them best:

“Which substance is the most dangerous?” he asked. “The one you’re using.”

About Chris Thurstone

Dr. Christian Thurstone is one of about three dozen physicians in the United States who are board certified in general, child and adolescent and addictions psychiatry. He is medical director of one of Colorado’s largest youth substance-treatment programs and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD), where he conducts research on youth substance use and addiction and serves as director of medical training for the university’s addiction psychiatry fellowship program.

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