There has been much in the news lately about marijuana. With Washington and Colorado passing recreational use laws, and our own state having a medical marijuana law, it’s no wonder that young people are confused about this gateway drug. To add to the confusion, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill into law legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries. How that will play out here and in other cities across the state, has yet to be seen.

Many cities are taking a “not in my backyard” approach, passing temporary bans on such establishments, until more clarification emerges on how that will look for Oregon. It is up to the Oregon Health Authority to establish procedures and guidelines for licensing and regulating these medical marijuana dispensaries.

As a teacher for the past 22 years, I have seen some of my own students fall into the dangerous pit of drug use. I am concerned about the recent trends I see in our young people regarding substance abuse, especially marijuana.

I decided to do some research and share the results with you with a hope that we all can band together to help our kids have a bright future by choosing to live above the influence.

The access to this gateway drug, as well as a change in the perception that marijuana is not harmful has caused an increase in the use of pot — both here in Oregon and nationwide.

In the Tigard-Tualatin School District, we have seen a corresponding increase in the number of Office Discipline Referrals for drugs. Tualatin High has seen a gradual rise from 24 referrals for the 2009-10 school year to 47 in 2012-13. This school year, with more of a focus on catching kids who are under the influence at school, we have had 53 office discipline referrals through March 3.

It may appear that more students are using, but what it probably means is just that we are catching more of them; a more accurate assessment of drug use in the school.

Parents should be on the lookout for the new and more discreet ways their child could be using marijuana. For example, the smell of marijuana when smoked is very strong. Enter “Vape Pens,” battery-operated small vaporizers that look like a pen, but when you remove the cap, they are a sneaky tool allowing users to vaporize dry “herbs” like tobacco or marijuana. In this way, users are avoiding the smell (of tobacco or pot) and might be more likely to fly under the radar of detection. This was news to me, and to other teachers in our school. Nonetheless, one of our staff verified this is often how our kids are using at school.

It is a confusing time for kids regarding marijuana. They are getting a mixed message about this drug, and it’s our responsibility as adults to do what we can to give our young people the real scoop on pot.

An unforeseen problem with legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use as an adult, is that it increases access to the drug for our young people.

A February 2014 study at NYU Langone Medical Center found that a large percentage of high school students normally at low risk for marijuana use reported intention to use marijuana if it were legal.

The young brain is especially vulnerable to marijuana. In a recent study (Northwestern Medicine, 2013), it was found that even two years after a regular marijuana-smoker stops smoking, there may be permanent changes to the structures in their brains. These marijuana-related brain abnormalities correlate with poor memory performance and look similar to schizophrenia-related brain abnormalities. Furthermore, the younger a person is when marijuana use begins, the more severe the damage to (his or her) brain.

A different study, released on July 1, 2013, conducted by scientists at Imperial College London, and King’s College London, found that “long-term cannabis users tend to produce less dopamine, a neurochemical directly linked to motivation and reward.” They used PET brain imaging to see the effects — and those who began smoking marijuana at a younger age had the lowest dopamine levels.

Additionally, even when subjects quit smoking pot two years earlier, those who started at a younger age had the lowest current levels of dopamine. This suggests cannabis use may be the cause of the difference in dopamine levels.

We, as parents and educators, need to increase our efforts to educate young people about the potential health hazards associated with marijuana use. Additionally, we should encourage an active lifestyle, to stimulate the body’s own production of endocannibinoids. It is this natural endocannabinoid system that regulates anxiety and the body’s response to stress. Chronic stress or an acute emotional trauma can stunt this system, causing anxiety.

Unfortunately, those who smoke marijuana to relieve anxiety end up short-circuiting their body’s own endocannabinoid system with repeated marijuana use. Encouraging drug-free activities, such as exercise, or yoga, or meditation, is likely more effective at reducing anxiety in the long run.

Kathy Hollamon is a content area leader in health and physical education for Tualatin High School.

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