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Three Teenagers Explain Why They Turned to Marijuana to Help Their Medical Conditions

Children and teens have many conditions that are amenable to treatment by cannabis, but the political and emotional intensity around the issue prevent serious research.

Cannabis use by children and teens raises a specter which has long been exploited by opponents of the herb: the nation’s youth seduced into drug dependence, depravity, and slackerdom by a dangerous substance whose use leads inevitably to addiction and harder drugs.

Could it be that many teen cannabis users are simply self-medicating to alleviate undiagnosed anxiety and depression? The prevalence of depression, anxiety and other forms of stress in teens may be considerably greater than is commonly understood.  A National Youth Violence Prevention Center survey revealed that 20% of teens had thought about suicide within the past year.

As Tom O’Connell, MD, has pointed out, self-medicating with cannabis for anxiety and depression can be a safer alternative to use of nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs. There are a number of conditions with significant incidence in children and teens—notably asthma, ADD/ADHD, and auto-immune disease—that are amenable to treatment by cannabis.  Unfortunately, given the intensity of the political and emotional charge surrounding this issue, the necessary research cannot be carried out.    

Joanie: A Teen with Pain

Joanie was 19 when I met her in a clinic. She had been using cannabis for four years.  Her mother accompanied her to the clinic, and was obviously very supportive of her use, and positive about what she agreed were dramatic benefits Joanie had experienced. As her story unfolded, I felt a widening disconnect between Joanie’s obvious poise and intelligence, and the severe problems she had overcome.  She was an achiever and a survivor, and far from holding her back in any way, cannabis use had apparently been critically important in facilitating her reemergence from years of physical, mental, and emotional debility. 

Joanie: I broke my leg in a skiing accident when I was 13. They put in a rod, and they had to take out my kneecap to do it. 

Dr. M: What kind of pain meds did you use?

Joanie: I was in constant pain, and they put me on Vicodin. It made me sick to my stomach.  I was vomiting every day, every time I took it.  Celebrex also hurt my stomach. 

Dr. M: How did all this affect you mentally?

Joanie: I got depressed, and they put me on antidepressants; Pamelor first, when I was 14.  It didn’t work, and every time I saw a doctor they were trying a new antidepressant medication, or changing the dose. I can’t tell how many antidepressants I tried. None of them worked, they all made me worse.  They didn’t know what to label me; bipolar, or whatever. They had me on antipsychotic drugs, which also made me worse.  

When I was 15 I had another surgery, because the rod in my leg had got stuck as I grew, and caused nerve damage. The pain was constant, and the next drug I tried was Darvocet. I took that for a year, and it gave me terrible rebound headaches.  I had had migraines since I was 13, and the Darvocet made them way worse. 

Then, when I was 16, I got rear-ended by a big truck while I was waiting to make a left turn.  The whole back of my car was crunched right up, practically to the back of my head. I had a whiplash injury. When they did the MRI of my spine, they discovered I had scoliosis.

Dr. M: How and when did you discover cannabis?

Joanie: I tried it at school with friends, when I was 15. 

Dr. M: Recreationally, or did you think it might help with the pain?

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