Addiction expert states the facts

Dr. Ruth Potee speaks to Island students about the science behind drug addiction during a March 24 assembly. —Lizzie Dourian

By Annika Schmidt

Last month the MV Times ran an article about the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s above average use of marijuana. The school responded to this information, in part, by asking Dr. Ruth Potee, a health care professional who also specializes in addiction, to speak to both the high school students and 7th and 8th graders across the island.

“Addiction breaks the part of the brain that controls the instinct to survive,” said Dr. Ruth Potee as she spoke to high school students Friday about the impact of drugs and alcohol on the  developing brain. Her talk focused on encouraging students to delay use of these substances–ideally up to the age of 25–by explaining the science behind the harmfulness of addiction.

Sophomore Josephine Orr appreciated Dr. Potee’s approach to explaining drug abuse to the students. “I’m glad she used facts to reason with us, rather than directly arguing with opinions about usage,” she said.

Dr. Potee, a family doctor, works with a range of patients in terms of both age and illness. She is also the doctor and medical director for the local jail and a drug and alcohol treatment center in Greenfield, MA. Once a week she travels to talk to schools and communities about the impact of drugs and alcohol on adolescents.

“As a health teacher, I understand the importance of guiding young people in the right direction to make good decisions,” said Kathy Perrotta, the Physical Education/Health Department chair at the high school. “I thought it was good and important that she touched on the science of the brain, particularly because information on this topic is still relatively new,” she said.

Dr. Potee explained to students how drug use disrupts the natural levels of dopamine, a pleasure chemical in the brain. Dopamine levels increase naturally by exercise and healthy relationships, for example, and then the chemical levels return to normal. Drug use, however, in the undeveloped brain increases dopamine levels to highs that the body recognizes as extremely abnormal. That, in turn, causes the body to destroy its own dopamine receptors in response. The result is a much lower base level of dopamine in the user’s brain, which leads to seeking an increase through further drug use. This is when the human brain is most susceptible to addiction.

“I didn’t know anything about why or how our brains get addicted to things,” said junior Emily Hewson. “I’m glad someone had faith in us to understand the facts of the situation with addiction, rather than telling us no and expecting us to blindly accept it,” she said.  

Statistics from the Youth Task Force 2016 survey puts the regional high school above both the state and national averages for marijuana use. According to the survey from last year, 34 percent of ninth through twelfth graders use marijuana, which is higher than both 25 percent for the state and 22 percent for the nation. “Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School seniors are using marijuana at a rate of 54% percent and that’s the highest rate I’ve ever heard in any school district,” Dr. Potee said.

Freshman Tripp Hopkins said, “I never really understood how addiction works, and this assembly definitely made me think about the issue of drugs, especially on Martha’s Vineyard. I didn’t realize how many people were abusing drugs just in our community.”

During her talk, Dr. Potee eliminated the myth about the non-addictive qualities of marijuana. “Thirty to forty percent of marijuana users develop a dependency, so it is absolutely addictive,” she said.

“Many kids in my class want to argue the harmlessness of marijuana,” Ms. Perrotta said.  “Marijuana use seems to have gotten worse over the last three to four years,” she said.

Dr. Potee pointed to the industrialization of marijuana as one cause of the widespread marijuana use. “The industry is trying to get young people addicted to marijuana, in order to gain long term customers as a result,” she said.

She explained the three factors that lead to addiction of any substance–genetics, trauma as a child, and early use. People with parents or grandparents who have struggled with addiction have a 50 percent chance of having the same addiction. Kids who start drinking alcohol at the age of 15 have a 40 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic, while those who wait until age 21 to start drinking only have a 7 percent chance. “My message is that while your brains are still developing, you need to delay substance use for as long as possible to maintain a healthy brain and body,” Dr. Potee said.

She cited her experience working with incarcerated heroin addicts when explaining that the younger people are when they start using substances, the sicker they ultimately become.

“This assembly really showed me just how vulnerable the teenage brain is to substance abuse,” Tripp said.