Experts say early drug use leads to more significant effects

TOPEKA, Kan.–According to the Kansas Communities that Care student survey, more than one fifth of students in Shawnee County report trying marijuana at least once.

Erin Evanson-Lass, a clinician for Family Service & Guidance Center, said, “It’s readily available.  A lot of the kids that I see don’t have any problems getting access to drugs of several different kinds, whether it’s marijuana or over-the-counter drugs or prescription drugs or even some of the heavier drugs like cocaine.”

About 30 percent of students surveyed said they thought smoking marijuana regularly presented no risk or only a slight risk.

But Dr. Eric Voth, a physician at Stormont-Vail HealthCare, says the risks are great.

“Don’t underestimate pot.  It’s not ‘just pot.’ Pot is a serious drug of abuse, it has serious consequences, and as the marijuana has gotten stronger, those consequences have been more intense,” said Voth.

Brian Thompson of Topeka is a recovered drug addict.

Thompson said, “They always ask you, growing up, what do you want to be when you grow up? […] Well, before you figure out what you want to be when you grow up, you’ve got to find out who you want to be.”

He said he decided who he wanted to be at a young age.

“I made the choice at 13 that I wanted to be a drug addict, which doesn’t sound very smart. But I was 13 years old, and I liked the older kids that were drug addicts, so I made the decision to be a drug addict.”

Thompson experienced marijuana for the first time when he was 14.

He said, “They always say, ‘Drugs are bad. Drugs are bad. Drugs are bad.’ Well, when you make the choice to be a drug addict, and then you get the drug and you smoke it for the first time, you spend the first two and a half hours laughing nonstop.  I just had the most fun I’ve ever had.”

That fun experience led him to many other drugs, including alcohol, ecstasy, meth, and cocaine.

Many refer to marijuana as a gateway drug that leads to other drug use; this was the case for Thompson.  But Voth said marijuana is much more than a gateway drug.

“It’s kind of funny that people think about it that way because it takes away from the significance of marijuana use itself,” said Voth. “And if you ask around, most people have been sold this bill of goods that marijuana is no big deal.

Both Voth and Evanson-Lass agree that pot use causes big problems.

Voth said, “It’s clearly associated with numerous psychiatric disorders now, including psychotic behaviors, schizophrenia, depression, suicide…”

Evanson-Lass said substance abuse and mental illness often go hand in hand.

“Probably 60 to 70 percent of kids that walk through our door will have a co-occurring diagnosis,” she said.

She said drugs can flip a switch in a person’s brain.

“It changes the brain structure and chemistry in ways that are very difficult to undo or reverse,” said Evanson-Lass.

That’s what happened to Thompson.

“My brain kind of snapped a little bit and I started hallucinating,” he said.

After 6 years of drug use and abuse, Thompson developed Schizophrenia.

“Even when I was sober, I was hallucinating,” said Thompson. “I had to make a decision if I wanted to keep hallucinating or if I wanted a regular life.”

Even though Thompson has stopped using drugs, his mental illness remains.

“I’ve been clean for 7 years, and I have voices in my head all day,” said Thompson.

His schizophrenia was likely due to the numerous drugs he used for the length of time he used them, but it all started with marijuana.

“At a young age, you feel invincible. But the problem is, if you look at the statistics, something is going to happen to you,” said Thompson. “Ten percent of people get this; 20 percent get this; one percent actually get schizophrenia, which is small… But if you add all the percentages together, something is going to happen to you. And by using drugs, you increase the chance that something will happen.”

Thompson now works as a Certified Peer Specialist at Valeo, where he received treatment. He says it helps him stay sober.

“The best way to stay sober is to be a drug counselor because you see how it’s affecting everybody,” said Thompson. “As a treater, seeing people high or hallucinating or thinking that I’m reading their thoughts is a daily reminder that I suffer with this and I need to continue with my recovery or I will go back to this.”

Thompson said he likes supporting people who’ve experienced the same challenges he has faced.

Evanson-Lass said, who has treated many teens with drug addiction, said, “They can’t do it alone. They really have to have a strong support system.”

Thompson said he has turned to his Christian faith for support.

Instead of talking to the voices in his head, he said, “I talk to God every day now. Me and him, we’re buds.”

He said God is the reason he was able to make a change.

“I mean that’s God,” said Thompson. “He took me off of it.  He knew that I was not in any shape to continue using drugs. Now I just try to live the life he wants me to live.”

For more information about teen drug abuse and prevention, visit the Kansas Family Partnership website.

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