It’s not what you eat, it’s what’s eating you

The question of cannabis use by people under the age of 21 and its effect on the brain is still controversial, because the younger brain is not fully formed.

Black Snow playing at the Sobar (photo credit: TRACEY SHIPLEY)

We received several interesting responses to our recent substance abuse column (“Ignorance is never bliss,” June 6). One in particular stands out because it raises some excellent questions that we think will be of interest to other readers.


Dear Judith and Tracey,

Your article about substance abuse in The Jerusalem Post was particularly relevant because I just had a discussion with my adult children (25 and 26) about marijuana use. They insist that marijuana is not as dangerous as it is made out to be (and should be legal), but more importantly, that they can take it responsibly without abusing it. Similarly to alcohol, not everyone who drinks a beer once in a while becomes an alcoholic.

The idea is substance abuse. In fact, they claim that alcohol is much worse than marijuana because there are more fatalities and brain damage from alcohol. Here is a link they forwarded.

I should add that my children are university-educated and highly successful adults who would take a marijuana snack once in a while just to “feel good.” They are not introverted, ostracized or obsessive.

My questions are the following:

1) Is marijuana addictive or poisonous to the system?

2) Can a person take marijuana reliably and responsibly like a glass of wine in the evening?

3) Is there scientific proof that marijuana use is bad and should be avoided at all costs?


Here is our response and further elaboration: Your adult kids are basically correct. And they sound very responsible. Good for all of you that you are discussing the topic together and reading articles online.

The idea that cannabis, though illegal without a medical license, is less harmful than alcohol is also gaining increasing support from the establishment. Furthermore, most people who do lighter drugs do not go on to heavier ones such as cocaine or heroin. In other words, the so called “gateway theory” about substance abuse has also been delegitimized.

Most people who try cannabis have also tried cigarettes and/or alcohol first, but we seldom hear anyone refer to beer or tobacco as a gateway drug. More importantly, there is no substantive research proving permanent brain damage from moderate cannabis use.

Finally, cannabis is not technically addictive – i.e., there is no physiological withdrawal. Coffee is known to be more addictive, as anyone who goes cold turkey off caffeine will tell you. It precipitates edginess, irritability and headaches.

Similarly more and more research indicates that cannabis is less harmful to the lungs than cigarette tobacco. Here is a link to research on this issue.

However, the question of cannabis use by people under the age of 21 and its effect on the brain is still controversial, because the younger brain is not fully formed.

Furthermore, substance abuse can affect the ability to make safe choices while under the influence, whether it involves driving a car or a bike, or just crossing the street.

Teens have a tendency to believe that they are omnipotent and that nothing can happen to them. The introduction of an altered-state substance to this tendency can be a recipe for disaster. All the more reason that drug education, information and family communication is mandatory.

It is also critically important to know why our kids are using substances. In Overeaters Anonymous there is an expression: “It’s not what you eat, it’s what’s eating you.”

The same applies to drug and alcohol abuse. If our kids are using mood-altering chemicals as self-medication or to escape the stress of everyday life, it could indicate that there is a deeper issue that should be addressed.

If they are using them because they are anxious, depressed or bored, they are more likely to develop an unhealthy/ abusive connection to substances over time and could become drug dependent, even if they aren’t technically addicted. And in a few cases, even occasional use of substances can actually trigger a psychotic or schizophrenic tendency that has been previously latent. The trouble is that you can’t know this until after the fact.

Certainly, if a young teen is already diagnosed with a psychological problem, exposure to drugs and alcohol could be a risky business. There are definitely kids who can use drugs and alcohol on occasion with no negative effect on their daily lives. Not everyone is built to be an addict, but we need to be aware and proactive in educating ourselves about these issues, and be aware that even the most unlikely teen is likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol at some point.

In light of the latter, it may be surprising to learn that cannabis and other substances such as ecstasy and LSD are being used in therapeutic settings, including here in Israel, to treat a wide range of serious psychiatric conditions including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But such treatments are only geared toward adults and are only undertaken in specific settings with highly trained professionals in the context of specific protocols. This is definitely not the same as a teen self-medicating.

Which leads us back to the topic of what messages we want to relay to our kids. If our kids see us drinking responsibly, not excessively, this can serve as good role modeling. It’s also important to let our kids know that they don’t need to use drugs or alcohol to have a good time. Kids today are exposed to increasing peer and media pressure about drink and drugs. They are looking for more external stimulation. As we mentioned in our previous column, kids want “action.” They have a natural, inbuilt need to get their endorphins flowing. So how can we help them?

One alternative is the Sobar, an alcohol-free live music bar in the capital. With summer break upon us and plenty of visitors from abroad, there will be even larger nighttime gatherings of kids in downtown Jerusalem. Some manage to get into the bars illegally. Some buy bottles of booze and drink in parks and other public venues. Some gather at the numerous drop-in centers for kids around the city, but ultimately hit the streets.

Currently there is a new collaboration with the Off the Wall Comedy Basement, which hosts a weekly live, non-alcoholic music event featuring groups of local teen and young adult musicians. Kids are invited to perform with their bands, sing and play at the open mike, jam with friends or just come to enjoy the music and hang out.

The Sobar is looking to spread the word, recruit new talent and audiences. So far it has been a great success, and we want to encourage the Jerusalem community to help support this pilot program and make it a permanent part of the teen scene. So please contact Tracey at sobarjerusalem@gmail.com if you or your kids want more information or want to get involved. Teens and young adults can join the Facebook page Sobar Jerusalem.

Tracey Shipley CAAP, is a teen counselor and addiction specialist. She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com; http://jerusalemteenteencounseling.net.

Judith Posner, PhD, is a social scientist, writer and researcher.