[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Day 2 in Noozhawk’s 12-day, six-week special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]

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The nation’s largest — and latest — study of illicit drugs found an explosion of marijuana use among Americans age 12 or older in 2010.

The National Survey on Drug Use & Health, released Sept. 8 by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, concluded that marijuana users are largely to blame for the continued increase in illegal drug use, which includes the nonmedical use of prescription medications. The agency is a division of the Health and Human Services Department.

Overall, the statistics show, 22.6 million Americans 12 or older were illegal drug users in 2010. That figure counts for 8.9 percent of the population, up from 8 percent in 2008 and 7.9 percent in 2004.

The survey found that marijuana users are largely to blame for the general increase, especially among young adults ages 18 to 25. In 2010, pot was being used by 17.4 million teens and adults, or 6.9 percent of the population, up from 5.8 percent in 2007. Among young adults, however, 22 percent were using.

Many public health officials say they are concerned that medical marijuana or the legal use of marijuana to treat certain medical or pain-related conditions may fuel further increases in use. They say the message being conveyed to young people is that medical marijuana is safe, but that’s not necessarily the case.

In California, marijuana can be recommended by doctors in certain circumstances but is considered a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

With voter approval of Proposition 215 in 1996, qualified patients are allowed to grow or acquire marijuana for medicinal purposes, such as pain or nausea relief.

Noozhawk talked with Dr. David Bearman, who specializes in pain management and cannibinoid medicine and writes physician recommendations for qualified patients, said marijuana does not have the same abuse potential as other prescription drugs, like opioids, and is not addictive.

“I’d say the most important thing is the safety,” he said.

He added that marijuana has been studied extensively and “it has very few side effects.” Nevertheless, the federal government does not recognize marijuana — even for medical purposes — as a legal substance, making that the biggest hurdle for patients.

Bearman said he sees about 50 patients a month and that the most common ailments he uses marijuana to help treat are pain relief for things such as failed back surgery, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, TMJ syndrome, as well as PMS, degenerative disc disease depression, insomnia, anxiety, migraine headaches, epilepsy, nausea, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Bearman said he has good relationships with other local doctors.

“I have a lot of respect in the local medical community,” he said. “Over 70 physicians have referred one or more patients to me for a medical assessment pursuant to Proposition 215.”

Medical marijuana storefront dispensaries are one way patients can acquire the marijuana once they get a doctor’s recommendation, and the permitting of these establishments is a subject of fierce debate in Santa Barbara.

A major concern among local authorities is that the marijuana often ends up in the hands of adolescents with no medical need for the drug.

Alcohol and marijuana are the biggest issues among schoolchildren, and dozens are suspended or expelled every year for being in possession, under the influence or selling on campus, according to local school officials.

Students report that marijuana is easy to get and they don’t realize the consequences of possession, said Marlin Sumpter, director of student services for the Santa Barbara Unified School District. Even if students have a medical marijuana recommendation or card, it’s not recognized on campus so all possession is illegal, district administrators have said.

The California Healthy Kids Survey has found that the majority of seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders have never tried marijuana, but those who have, tried it for the first time when they were between ages 13 and 16.

Three percent of seventh-graders tried marijuana four or more times, the survey said, followed by 17 percent of ninth-graders, 35 percent of 11th-graders and 67 percent of nontraditional students.

Treatment advocates say heavy marijuana use during teenage years can disrupt brain development, since the active ingredient THC binds to receptors in nerve cells that are used to regulate coordination, memory and learning, judgment and pleasure.

The University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project has detected an increase in marijuana potency during the past 30 years, but research did not show whether users now use less to compensate, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We also do not know all the consequences to the brain and body when exposed to higher concentrations of THC,” the report said.

The nonprofit Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse believes keeping children off drugs of any kind will greatly increase their potential for a healthy life.

“If you can delay or postpone someone’s use, you’re basically inoculating them against addiction,” said Shereen Khatapoush, director of Fighting Back’s Youth Service System.

“If someone uses alcohol, marijuana — anything — before the age of 15, they are four to five times more likely (repeat) to have addiction or dependence at some point in their lifetime,” she said. “So addiction, dependence … it’s fundamentally a developmental disorder.

“If you don’t start using as an adolescent, you’re probably never going to have a problem. You might experiment, you might have problem use at some point, but you probably won’t have real addiction or dependence issues.”

Authorities are also concerned about dispensary clients reselling the marijuana or allowing their children to get access to it.

“I don’t think our community understands, in general, who’s actually getting that marijuana,” Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Von Nguyen told Noozhawk. “It’s not the sick and dying people who are in a wheelchair and they need their marijuana to survive for the day. We are talking about kids who are absolutely fine, but they want that high.

“Until we’re educated, it’s going to continue to be a problem.”

District Attorney’s Office investigator Tom Miller said some people with medical marijuana recommendations break their pot into smaller quantities and resell it. He added that authorities often find juveniles with marijuana that is still in dispensary packaging.

“We’ve confirmed that kids are committing crimes to get the marijuana,” said Nguyen, who worked as a Juvenile Court prosecutor before her recent reassignment to narcotics cases. “There are kids whose parents have a medical marijuana recommendation and grow marijuana at their house, and kids are going to that house and they’re getting high there.

“Law enforcement has its hands tied because the parents have the right to have their marijuana. We’re not there so we can’t prove those kids are getting it from that house, and they’re not going to tell anyone.”

In her experience with Juvenile Court, Nguyen said, at least 75 percent of the cases involve minors trying alcohol or marijuana or smoking regularly.

Many adolescents have drug-related crimes or violate probation because they test positive for marijuana during regular drug testing, Nguyen said. Some choose to switch to prescription medications to avoid detection, since their probation conditions include testing for alcohol or marijuana.

“I cannot stress the amount of kids who are coming through our system who are either addicted to marijuana or are using marijuana on a daily basis,” she said.

Abuse of marijuana among adults — regardless of whether they have doctors’ recommendations — is prevalent, as well. Along with heroin, marijuana is one of the top drugs of choice reported among inmates in the Sheriff’s Treatment Program at the County Jail, said Chuck McClain, the program’s supervisor.

McClain has been working in the treatment and recovery field for 30 years and is a recovering addict himself.

The percentage of Sheriff’s Treatment Program participants who report marijuana as their drug of choice is increasing every year, and McClain guesses it will be up to 20 percent this year.

He expects heroin to be the drug of choice for 25 percent of people, methamphetamines down to 25 percent or 30 percent, and opiates up to 5 percent, he said.

Some people call marijuana the gateway drug, which McClain used to think was a lot of smoke, he said. In his experiences at the jail, he said he’s seen recovering addicts relapse into using their drug of choice if they smoke a joint. Prescription drugs have a similar effect, making people get into old habits, he added.

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people who’ve had several or many years of sobriety, and all of a sudden they have a back problem or something like that and the doctor gives them a pain pill and these people are no longer sober,” McClain said. “They’re back to their old drug of choice along with their prescription.”

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Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health-SAMHSA

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.