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Feb 6, 2012 4:50 PM by Andy Koen

Teen pot use grew with medical marijuana boom

At 18, Abby Ferguson has had her medical marijuana card since June but says she's used pot for years.

"It was a big part of the culture where I grew up, Manitou, it's pretty common down here," Abby said.

She isn't alone; recent state and national surveys show a growing number of teens use marijuana. The Colorado Department of Education reported a 40 percent increase in school expulsions for drug use in 2009 alone, and 30 percent of teenagers in Adams County last year reported using marijuana in the previous month, up from 19 percent in 2009.

Medical professionals worry those increases will lead to a generation with widespread chemical dependency issues. Christian Thurstone, M.D., a board-certified child/adolescent and addictions psychiatrist, says 95 percent of his patients report having a marijuana addiction. He also say his patients overwhelmingly reported obtaining the drug from a medical marijuana patient.

"The earlier you try marijuana the more likely you are likely to become addicted to it," Thurstone said.

He explains the brains of teenagers are still developing until about age 25. One in 6 teens who tries marijuana will become addicted as compared to 1 in 9 adults.

"We see all the time teenagers who are completely giving up on life, they're giving up on their families, their school, their future because they are so addicted to marijuana," Thurstone said.

While she admits to regularly using marijuana multiple times a day, Abby doesn't think she's addicted. In fact, she says cigarettes are more harmful.

"I don't think it's an addiction; I think it's addictive, I think it's habit forming, but if I stop smoking marijuana it's not like I'm going through physical withdrawals," she said.

A sharp division of opinion exists over the harm and health benefits of marijuana use. That debate takes on greater significance this year voters are being asked to make access to marijuana even easier.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol wants to decriminalize recreational pot use. Early last month, campaign members submitted over 160,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of States office to put the issue on the ballot, nearly double the number necessary.

Campaign Co-chairman Brian Vicente told a crowd of reporters at the time, "we believe Coloradans are absolutely ready to end the failed policy marijuana prohibition."

When questioned about the increase in teen marijuana use Vicente seemed to suggest that legalization would make decrease teen use.

"If we move marijuana out of the black market where, frankly, drug dealers don't ask for ID currently; if we move it out of there, we move it behind the counter, we have quality people like we've heard from today as the folks that are the licensed vendors, (then) we think it would actually be better for Colorado's youth."

The only safeguard proposed in the ballot language to prevent the sale of pot to minors is a photo identification requirement. The campaign is also openly recruiting young people to help them pass the measure.

Doctor Thurstone worries that legalizing marijuana will further erode perceptions of risk and lead to greater numbers of teens addicted.

"Easier access to marijuana is bad for kids, more favorable perceptions about it's harmfulness is bad for kids, more acceptability of marijuana is bad for kids as well."

Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since the year 2000. However, the number of dispensaries has grown rapidly since 2009 when the U.S. Justice Department issued the Ogden memo which discourages the prosecution of patients and dispensary owners who comply with state laws.

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