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Mayo talk to help parents decode marijuana signals

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Youths get mixed signals about marijuana, which makes it all the more necessary for parents to guard against smoke signals, according to a child and adolescent psychiatrist in La Crosse.

The medical marijuana movement adds to the confusion, said Dr. Barry Irons of Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare.

“Sometimes, they will say it must be OK because people prescribe it,” Irons said. “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Irons also cited the examples of longtime — and very public — marijuana users such as comedian Bill Maher and country-singing legend Willie Nelson, who Irons said, “have essentially promoted the message that it’s OK. We used it, and we turned out OK.”

That may be so, Irons said, but that ignores the risk marijuana poses for youths’ developing brains.

Irons and Mayo-Franciscan clinical therapist Mandy Hess will explain the signs and perils of cannabis during a free public presentation titled “Baked, Blazed or Stoned: What Parents Need to Know About Teenage Marijuana Use” at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Mayo’s Marycrest Auditorium.

“We all know teenagers can be stormy and try on different identities and new friends,” Irons said.

That complicates the parental task of deciphering whether changing behavior can be attributed to teen angst or drug use, he said.

Significant changes such as withdrawing from activities, developing new friends who might be using drugs, falling grades and radically changing interests “don’t necessarily mean they are using drugs, but they could be signs,” he said.

Besides paying attention to such indicators and maintaining communication with their children, Irons advises parents, “If you haven’t told them they shouldn’t use it, it’s almost a tacit endorsement. You have to make it clear there are long-term consequences,” Irons said.

Irons said he is especially concerned because cannabis these days is “six to 15 times more potent than it was in the ’70s, and it affects judgment.”

Although Irons acknowledged that the contention that marijuana is a gateway drug leading to use of heroin, cocaine and other drugs hasn’t been proved, he said there is ample evidence that those who use such substances started with marijuana.

Irons said his presentation is not intended to be a lecture but rather an “open mic” of sorts to inform parents and allow them to ask questions and voice concerns.

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