Thu, 25 Sep 2003 - Billings Gazette (MT)

Expert Urges Tough Fight Against Drugs

By James Hagengruber, of the Gazette Staff

Marijuana is addictive and harmful and is being used by teens and children, said Dr. Susan Dalterio, a drug expert from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Efforts to legalize the drug will weaken when more people are made aware of its bad effects, Dalterio told a group of about 125 law officers and government leaders attending an anti-drug conference Wednesday in Billings.

"We need to keep the fight up," Dalterio said. "We need to inoculate every generation because these drugs are not going away. ... If you're a patriotic American or a parent or a teacher, you have to keep saying no and no and no."

Dalterio made her case against marijuana at the Big Sky Illicit Drug Conference, which runs through the end of the week. The conference was organized by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Much of the conference focused on fighting methamphetamine, but the war against all illegal drugs will continue, said Bill Mercer, U.S. attorney for Montana. Terrorism and gun crimes remain the top priorities of federal law enforcement, Mercer said, but controlling illegal drugs remains high on the list.

Marijuana is a "gateway" drug that leads to use of other, more dangerous drugs, Mercer said.

"The tolerance level that it has in a number of communities is disturbing," he said.
New measures aimed at reducing demand are being considered. One of these includes prosecuting those who possess drugs in federal court, Mercer said. The law is rarely used off Indian reservations -- where state courts have no jurisdiction -- but it might have a strong deterrent effect, especially when the drug user's actions endanger children. The first federal drug possession offense is a misdemeanor, but the second time brings a felony, Mercer said. Most likely, the prosecution would be targeted at meth users, he said. No decisions have been made yet, however.

"What I need now is for people to weigh in," Mercer said. "Let's have a community conversation."

Dalterio tried to debunk many of the myths about marijuana. Marijuana is addictive, she said. But this is harder to see than with other drugs because the withdrawal effects are subtle and can last for weeks, unlike the intense physical drama involved with kicking a heroin or meth habit.

People get addicted to the drug because it's an easy way to experience a "dopamine moment," Dalterio said. This is the same brain chemical that's released after climbing a mountain or when watching a spring sunrise. Marijuana makes pleasure deceptively easy, she said. Without it, pot users find themselves unable to experience pleasure, she said.

Heavy users gain a tolerance to the drug, making it harder to achieve the high, but they never lose the physical relaxation brought on by the drug or the feeling of time slowing, Dalterio said. In Boston in the 1960s -- the time and place Dalterio went to college -- police officers would say the only people who drove the speed limit were the elderly or stoned students.

Marijuana chews up memory, Dalterio said. She told the audience to drive the point home with young people by comparing the effects to tearing out memory chips from a computer.

The impairment effects of pot can last 24 hours, which is much longer than many think, Dalterio said. This was demonstrated during a study in the 1980s involving pilots who smoked the drug. The pilots said they believed the effects of pot wore off after 24 hours. Researchers tested this theory by putting the pilots in a flight simulator a day after smoking. All did poorly. One crashed the simulated flight.

"They were very impaired and they thought they weren't," she said.

Dalterio said she feels like screaming when she hears about the alleged medical benefits of marijuana. "This is just crazy, it's totally nuts," she told the audience.
Marijuana has some beneficial effects on pain, she admitted, but other drugs do a better job and their safety and consistency are assured by the federal government. A synthetic version of marijuana is now available in pill form by prescription. It has been successful in treating nausea, pain and anorexia. People no longer have an excuse for smoking marijuana for medical reasons, she said.

"They're smoking dope because they like it," Dalterio said.

Marijuana causes a wide variety of physical and mental problems. The tar found in a joint is no different from what's found in a cigarette. It's also not much different from what is used on roads, Dalterio pointed out.

"In a marijuana joint you're getting 5 to as much as 25 times the tar as in a cigarette," Dalterio said.

Smoking marijuana causes a variety of respiratory troubles, as well as a depressed immune system, a lack of motivation and emotional immaturity. People who smoke pot tend to have the same emotional maturity level as when they first smoked a joint, she said. Dalterio cited Austin, Texas, as a living example. It's a place full of old hippies "stuck in the '60s," she said. "They're interesting, but they're still stuck."

This wasn't such a big deal in the 1960s and 1970s when most people didn't take their first toke until they were 19 years old, Dalterio said. Now, however, many 12-year-olds are getting high. This could have a huge consequences for the nation in a few years, she said.

Note: Susan Dalterio is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio - Email her at:

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