“It’s about availability, but also peer acceptance,” said Dr. Kevin M. Gray, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina. “In general, young people do not see these substances as dangerous, but the consequences of their use still exist.”
Although the risks associated with the drug tend to be short-lived – overdoses are rare and most compounds are not addictive – experts stress the importance of using them with professional guidance. Some states have decriminalized psilocybin, but it is still prohibited by federal law, although the Food and Drug Administration is expected to give approvals for some therapeutic uses in the coming years.
With marijuana use, risks include risks of impaired driving, potential for addiction and mental health effects such as heightened anxiety, depression, and temporary psychosis.
Many of these risks have been increased along with the potency of THC levels in cannabis, and even more so with vaping products, said Seon Kim Harris, co-director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Boston Children’s. Some vaping concentrates contain THC levels of 90 percent or higher, and the increased potency, she said, has contributed to a rise in cannabis hyperemesis syndromeIt is a condition that causes frequent vomiting in heavy marijuana users.
Overall, Professor Harris said she was encouraged by some of the survey trends, including the continued decline in tobacco use, especially among teens. She noted that the reduction in smoking highlighted the benefits of consistent and consistent public health messaging about the dangers of tobacco. But she said the increase in drug and alcohol use among college-age individuals is worrisome, especially given the potential for lifelong habits to form during those pivotal years. “Stress is a real contributor to the increase in substance use and it has been a really difficult time for Millennials and Generation Z,” she said.
Dr. Volkow, director of the NIDA, agreed. Given the normalization of previously illicit substances, she said, public health experts need to devise more accurate and thoughtful ways to communicate the potential dangers of recreational drugs that also have therapeutic benefits.
“As a society, we tend to be very firm about these things,” she said. “We say the drugs are so bad that they will fry your brains like an egg and then we undermine the evidence that they can be harmful, depending on the dose and the person taking them. By making everything black and white, we lose all credibility.”