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Marijuana's rising threat: For more kids, use turns into addiction

 John Brown experimented with marijuana at age 10, and it wasn't long before his experimentation grew into a five-year addiction.

Turned on to the drug by an older brother, John said, he first started taking "tokes," or hits, every other week off of blunts - a marijuana cigarette wrapped with cigar leaves.

At his peak use, the Vincent High School freshman said, he smoked as many as eight blunts per day. He is now among a growing number of youths who are addicted to marijuana.

Today's marijuana use is no benign rite of passage, experts say. The average level of THC - the active ingredient - in the drug rose from less than 1% in the mid-1970s to more than 7% today, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and that higher potency is leading more young people to addiction.

Adolescent marijuana addiction is a serious health issue, said Robert Denniston, who leads the national anti-drug campaign as acting director of the drug policy office.

In Wisconsin, among the youth ages 12 to 17 entering treatment in 2002, more than one in three had marijuana as their primary substance abuse, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to national statistics, the proportion of eighth-graders who tried marijuana in the last decade doubled, from 1 in 10 to 1 in 5.

"Marijuana is the most prevalent drug of addiction for kids. The drug today is so much stronger than even 10 or 15 years ago," said Brian Fidlin, a senior outpatient psychotherapist with the adolescent chemical dependency program at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital in Wauwatosa.

"The public needs to be educated," Fidlin said. "Almost every individual I see acknowledges marijuana use to the point where they are not functioning anymore."

Since its inception two years ago, the Aurora program has treated more than 500 patients.

Experimenting younger
Clean and sober for five months, John, now 15, is among 18% of high school males in Milwaukee who used marijuana before the age of 13. That statistic is from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

John, who lives in Metcalfe Park, said it was easy to buy the cigars to make blunts at "certain stores that didn't check ID," and it was equally easy to get weed.

"Someone would always give it to me for free because I knew people who sold it," he said. "It was part of my environment. We were smoking, drug dealing and involved in gangs."

John, who was arrested earlier this year on drug possession charges, has been in a court-ordered drug treatment program since June confronting the personal issues that led him to begin using the drug in the first place.

"My mother is incarcerated, and my father is somewhere. He doesn't have a place, either," said John, who now lives with an aunt. Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, John said that marijuana "made everything slow down."

John is in treatment at the Milwaukee Adolescent Health Program, located within the Downtown Health Center, 1020 N. 12th St. The program offers free chemical-dependency treatment and is funded through the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Fighting Back Initiative.

Cleon Suggs, an alcohol and drug counselor with the program, said he sees 50 youths a month who have drug addictions, primarily to marijuana. He said many have underlying problems, such as depression, and they use marijuana to self-medicate.

"These kids are up against a lot of adversity. The kids I deal with have problems at home and at school," he said. "It's an escape. A lot of kids are facing time because of that pleasure. My job is to give them an alternative to feeling good and help them overcome a lot of those social difficulties."

The drug has wreaked havoc in the lives of many families throughout Milwaukee's metropolitan area.

In Wauwatosa, Katrina Kruck and her husband, Michael, had their marijuana-addicted son, Alex, arrested for striking his father.

"He was hitting me and his dad when he came off of a drug high. We just couldn't live that way anymore," Katrina Kruck said.

Alex, who had been an A-student and an avid sports player through eighth grade, began using marijuana heavily when he got to high school, she said.

A junior at Wauwatosa East High School, he recently completed court-ordered time at St. Charles Youth & Family Center for the attack on his father.

"Marijuana is not the innocent drug people think it is. It's an absolute nightmare to see your child flush his life down the toilet for the drug," Katrina Kruck said. "We have had drug dealers in front of our house because Alex didn't pay them for the drugs."

Katrina and her husband have sought help by joining a parent support group. On a rain-chilled evening, Katrina Kruck joined a dozen other parents gathered in a small space just inside a Brookfield fitness center.

They formed a circle, and one by one shared their experiences as the parent of a drug-addicted teen. One woman in the group said her 16-year-old daughter traded sexual favors for marijuana. A man said his daughter saved up her lunch money to buy pot. Another woman said she had to take out a second mortgage so her son could get treatment for his addiction.

The group is small, Katrina Kruck said, but there are many other parents out there who are in denial.

"Unless people start talking about it, the problem is only going to get worse."

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