Recreational Pot Smokers Change Their Brains

Recreational Pot Smokers Change Their Brains, Too

Dear Jeff and Debra:


We’ve just found out that our daughter and son, both away at college, are smoking pot. We learned this through their younger sister, who decided we should know. We talked to both of our children to express our disapproval and inform them that they needed to stop using this drug immediately. My husband and I were shocked at their responses. They didn’t care what we had to say, but rather vehemently defended marijuana as a harmless drug that is being legalized and also used as a beneficial medication. They are both certain that smoking this drug a couple times a week is perfectly safe and say they plan to continue smoking it recreationally. My husband blew up at their disrespectful attitude and the conversation devolved into a screaming match.


Neither my husband nor I drink. It is a decision we made when our children were little. Alcoholism runs in both of our families, and we decided not to tempt fate. We have raised our kids to understand that addiction is a genetic disease and that they could have inherited it. We consider ourselves informed, communicative parents who prepared our children to make smart decisions around drinking and drugs. But these two kids steamrolled us with arguments on why this drug is harmless. They are obviously getting a lot of pro-marijuana information, which is usurping our parental guidance and authority. We are at our wit’s end.

-Mom and Dad


Dear Mom and Dad:


A widespread belief that recreational marijuana use – smoking it a couple times a week – is perfectly safe is being challenged by a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers from Harvard and Northwestern studied the brains of recreational pot smokers, ages 18 to 25, and compared them with non-marijuana smokers in the same age group.


Female pot smoker

Recreational Pot Smokers Change Their Brains, Too

In the areas of the brain that control emotions and motivation, recreational pot smokers showed significant abnormalities. “This is a part of the brain that you absolutely never ever want to touch,” said Hans Breiter, one of the researchers. These areas of the brain largely determine what we find pleasurable in life and how we gauge benefit and loss. Even those who only smoke once a week showed noticeable abnormalities. Smoking more often causes an increase in significant variations.


Breiter goes on to say, “People think a little marijuana shouldn’t cause a problem if someone is doing OK with work or school. Our data directly says this is not so.”


We don’t yet know exactly in what form these alterations to the brain change a person’s quality of life, but the emotional brain is a determining factor in our capacity to engage in healthy relationships, find a sense of happiness in life and have the ability to make good decisions. Memory is also exceedingly important in our capacity to make decisions.


Since the brain is in a rapid development phase during the teen years throughout the mid-twenties, introducing any drugs can alter this growth process and, according to neuroscientists, possibly cause permanent changes. When a brain’s ability to access emotions, process rewards, and make decisions is altered by marijuana, it should be taken seriously, according to researchers.


Additionally, by altering one’s mood with substances whenever socializing, social maturity is slowed or blocked. When we depend on a drug to do the work for us, we don’t develop socially in the same manner as we do when we’re sober.


We suggest you present this information to your children and pair it with a behavioral expectation that they stop using marijuana. If understanding how marijuana compromises their brains does not lead to an immediate end to their relationship with the drug, you have a bigger problem than recreational use. Kids value their brains. If they are willing to sacrifice their brain’s ability to function at its best possible level for the benefit of a high, seek professional help from a therapist who specializes in young adults and substance abuse. As parents, have a detailed conversation with the therapist before including your children to assess whether or not the therapist shares your values and expectations.


Questions? Comments? Contact us.


This article originally appeared in the Grosse Pointe News


Structured Family Recovery™ book available now

We’re happy to report that Debra Jay’s new book, “It Takes a Family: a cooperative approach to lasting sobriety,” is now available from Hazelden. The official release date for the book had been set for December 2014, but the first printing is ready to ship now.


“It Takes a Family” presents a fresh approach to the recovery process by making family members and friends part of the recovery team, beginning in the early stages of sobriety. Most books on recovery from addiction focus either on the addict or the family.


It Takes a Family: a cooperative approach to lasting sobriety

Presenting the new, year-long program called Structured Family Recovery™

While most alcoholics and addicts coming out of treatment have a recovery plan, families are often left to figure things out for themselves. In straightforward, compassionate language, she outlines a structured model that shows family members both how to take personal responsibility and to build a circle of support to meet the obstacles common to the first year of recovery.


Together, family members address the challenges of enabling, denial, and pain while developing their communication skills through practical, easy-to-follow strategies and exercises designed to create transparency and accountability. With this invaluable guide, family members work together as they reinvent their relationships without the all-consuming dysfunction of active addiction.


Debra Jay’s new program is called Structured Family Recovery™ and it’s changing the face of addiction treatment forever.


Debra is speaking at three conferences in the next two weeks, and will be doing book signings. You can see her speak at FADAP in Baltimore on September 30, 2014; Moments of Change, in Palm Beach, FL on Oct. 2, 2014; and Lifestyle Intervention Conference, Las Vegas, NV, October 7, 2014. For more on these upcoming events, click here.




Modeling Adulthood

Girl-Imitating-AdultKids notice everything. As they move into their teen years they notice more of everything and with a more discerning eye. They’re constantly adapting themselves to the world around them and evaluating the actions of others. Young people want to grow up fast, so they pay special attention to adults.


If kids see that adult gatherings always include alcohol, it sends a message that will be received loud and clear. The message is: if I’m an adult interacting with other adults in a social setting, I should be drinking. Children are the only ones who aren’t allowed to drink. If I’m going to be one of the grown-ups, I need to drink.


When extended family and friends come over for a holiday celebration, an adult birthday or a special occasion, is alcohol always part of the program? If so, the point about adulthood equaling alcohol is being reinforced.


How about sending a richer and more nuanced message. Yes, adults may drink alcohol, but alcohol isn’t a requirement for adults to get together. Take some time to plan adult family activities that don’t include alcohol, where everyone is having fun together without drinking. This possibly strange behavior will be noted and if alcohol normally plays a big role in your family, the message will be puzzled over by your kids. That’s a good thing.


Be sure your kids see the different ways you have to relax and take time for yourself. Work out, read a book, work on a project. You won’t have the luxury of isolation because you live in a house with kids, but you can demonstrate the various ways that adults relax, without using substances.


If a problem does arise with substance abuse in your household, get some help. When you think about it, it’s the only sensible thing to do. If you had transmission problems with your car, you wouldn’t attempt to become a transmission specialist overnight. Why would you? You’d get professional help with the problem.


The brain of a young female will continue to develop until the age of 21 to 23. For males, brain development continues until the age of 22 to 24. The regular use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs can impact the developmental process in a negative way. It may not be realistic to expect that your children will abstain from all substances until they complete their developmental process, but they should be made aware of the dangers. It also gives a reasonable and scientific basis for firm boundaries and expectations in the household.


Your kids will be exposed to alcohol and other drugs early in their teen years, if not earlier. Make sure you learn how to communicate with them before someone else does. And as always, actions speak louder than words.


– Jeff Jay



Help, Thanks, Wow

If you have someone in your life you’d like to introduce to prayer, Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: the three essential prayers, (Riverhead, 2012) may be your best bet. It’s irreverent enough to make the uninitiated feel comfortable and insightful enough to shock them. What could be better?


Help, Thanks, Wow: by Anne Lamott

Click for Amazon

If you have a seeker in your life, someone who is trudging down the path of life and spirit and pain Help, Thanks, Wow will be a wonderful respite from the journey. It’s a little oasis of a book, a refreshing conversation with a fellow traveler. You will laugh and nod your head as you read this book, and so will your seeker friends.


If you have someone in your life who’s awash in tragedy, not in the thick of it, but in the aftermath; someone who’s angry, who’s maybe lost faith and is or is not trying to put on a brave face, Help, Thanks, Wow is just the book. Anne Lamott doesn’t sweeten things up, doesn’t wear rose colored glasses and doesn’t pretend that everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. She is just the friend you want to see in the hospital or at the funeral home.


Help, Thanks, Wow is a very slim volume, the perfect size for a quiet evening. I will give it to friends and family for years to come, like banana bread at Christmas. Anne Lamott has given us all a great gift with this book, and I hope you’ll share it with those you love.


Jeff Jay








Hitting Bottom: A Family Affair

When addiction begins causing serious problems, a family’s greatest fears turn into reality. They watch with disbelief as the alcoholic continues drinking while their lives are falling apart. Unable to convince the alcoholic to stop drinking, families begin searching for answers. In my years of working with the relatives of alcoholics and addicts, I have found that families rarely reach out for help until the drinking and drugging hits a crisis point, and then they are often told:  “There’s nothing you can do until the alcoholic wants help. You’ll just have to let him hit bottom.

  No More Letting Go


Hitting bottom is an old idea, still imposed upon families as if it were an absolute. Many families sadly believe that they must wait for alcoholics to hit bottom before there is any hope for recovery. They rarely stop to consider that this belief sentences them to years of unhappiness and devastation. No one ever mentions the fact that alcoholics and addicts don’t take the trip to the bottom alone–the family goes with them. Families are never warned that the journey to the bottom takes even the smallest children.


Hitting bottom should never be our first strategy; it is a strategy of last resorts. Only when every reasonable intervention technique is exhausted, should we let someone freefall. Even then, there are ways to raise the bottom, to stretch out the safety net of treatment and recovery. Addiction always presents new opportunities. The trick is recognizing them and knowing how to take action.
Buy from Amazon (kindle too)


The premise of hitting bottom is that addicts hit one bottom and, when they get there, they are either struck sober or go running for the nearest treatment center. But addicts are resilient. They find people to rescue them. They often bounce along the bottom for years without a flicker of recognition that they need help. When they find themselves in a tough spot, alcohol whispers reassurances: There’s nothing to worry about as long as you have me.



Debra Jay

Debra Jay

I was having dinner with some recovering alcoholics, and a particularly nice fellow in his late fifties was celebrating fifteen years of sobriety. He talked about living in a roach infested, one-room apartment above a bar for twelve years, drinking and doing drugs every single day. He said his life was miserable, but he just couldn’t stop. He came close to dying several times before getting help. One of the people in our group said, “Well, you just weren’t ready.” Someone else piped in, “It takes what it takes.” Everyone’s heads nodded up and down in agreement. Stunned that my dinner companions thought that this man had to lose some of the best years of his life before he was ready to get sober, I asked, “Where was your family?” He said his wife divorced him and his kids never came around. “All for the better, really,” he added, “I wasn’t any kind of father worth having.” I asked what might have happened if everyone in his family, along with his closest friends, had come to him with a solid plan for recovery and an outpouring of love. Might he have accepted their help? Could it have turned out differently for him and his kids? Would his marriage have survived? He looked at me for a moment and then said, “I never considered that before. Who knows, I might’ve taken them up on their help. Maybe we could’ve saved our family.”



Do alcoholics ever hit bottom and then climb their way up into sobriety? Of course they do. But we never know who’ll be the lucky ones or what price they’ll pay along the way. Three hundred and fifty people a day find a bottom with no bounce – death. Countless others go to prison, go insane, or just go nowhere. Families are torn apart, children lose one or both parents and relationships are damaged beyond repair. But many begin a journey of recovery before hitting bottom–tough and rocky at first, but easier to travel as time goes on. Many things motivate alcoholics to make a turnaround before tragedy strikes, but it is usually family, friends or employers. When the Hazelden Foundation asked sober alcoholics what set them on their new course to recovery, seventy-seven percent said a friend or relative intervened. Someone cared enough to raise their bottom.



The best cases against hitting bottom are the real life stories: A college educated, 47-year-old divorced father of three loses everything, lives in his parent’s basement drinking and smoking pot daily and is unable to hold a job. A 24-year-old trades his girlfriend’s new car for crack cocaine. The police find a 72-year-old grandmother half naked and passed out on her front lawn. Babies are strapped in the backseat as a mother drives drunk to buy more wine; the police stop her, taking the children to protective services and mom to jail. A young father goes to bed drunk and suffocates on his own vomit. A successful 32-year-old woman driving home intoxicated kills a father and his daughter as she slams into them on the freeway. Each of these stories comes from families I’ve worked with and no words can express their pain or deep, abiding sense of loss. Waiting for alcoholics to hit unknown bottoms results in much tragedy and heartbreak.



“Bottoms” can be temporary. Alcoholics resist getting sober even when things are going badly in their lives. They are good at weathering storms. Perhaps they’ll swear off alcohol for a while, but as soon as things cool down, they begin drinking again. The addicted brain can’t make lasting connections between alcohol and the problems it causes. Once the problems go away, alcohol is their best friend again. Addiction is both invisible and sacred to alcoholics: they deny its existence yet sacrifice everything to it.
Addicts don’t want to cause trouble or hurt the people they love. Quite the contrary: they struggle to be the person they think they still are, the person they were before the addiction took hold. They can’t make sense of their own actions. As their addiction progresses and troubles mount, they work harder to manage their lives, but addiction never lets anyone lead a life free of trouble. There are always problems, big and small. Bad behavior, poor decisions and emotional upheaval are all symptoms of this disease that affects both the brain and soul. Families are confused, too. Not understanding what is happening to their loved ones, they mutter: “When will she learn?” But addicts can’t learn because addiction keeps tightening its grip, demanding complete allegiance.
The apostle Paul could have been describing an addict when he wrote: “I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate. Though the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not; the good thing that I want to do. I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do.” As alcoholics try to resolve the conflict between how they want to behave and how they are behaving, in the end, the only solution they can see is another drink.



-from No More Letting Go, by Debra Jay





We Made It Together

My life was in a downward spiral and suicide seemed like a good idea. I was homeless, penniless and very sick from the effects of addiction: a bleeding ulcer, a bleeding colon and transient neuropathy in my legs. I was twenty-six years old.


Suicide wasn’t just an idle thought. I’d known someone who’d killed himself and I figured I’d do it the same way. It seemed like an easy solution and I saw no other options. I’d been president of the student association at Grosse Pointe South High School and a National Merit Scholar. Now, I was living in a flop house in California, down to my last few dollars. I was too sick to work and too delusional to get help on my own.


In dire situations like mine, the sick person can’t be expected to make the right decisions. I certainly couldn’t be my own doctor, therapist or friend. Yet I would argue stubbornly with anyone who tried to reason with me. Friends and family had tried many times.


Jeff Jay, author and clinical interventionist

Jeff Jay

Fortunately, my family didn’t give up on me. At the eleventh hour, they tracked me down again, struggled past my stubbornness again and offered me help. This time, their long-distance intervention broke through my defenses and denial. The next day, I checked into a hospital for medical stabilization and was transferred ten days later to a month-long treatment program. Against all odds (and by the grace of God), I followed the directions I was given and joined the local community of recovering people. I’ve never looked back.


It all sounds easy, but there are few things more difficult. Most important were the continuing interventions that ultimately saved my life. Some people have the luxury of “hitting bottom,” coming to their senses and then getting appropriate help. But at that time in my life, I couldn’t find my backside with both hands. If it hadn’t been for the active involvement of my parents and the help of many other people along the way, I never could’ve made it. Recovery isn’t an “I” program, it’s a “we” program.


In many ways, we made it together. My parents had no idea how to help me, and their willingness to seek out and follow professional advice was a model for me to follow. They didn’t pretend to have all the answers, but they showed by example that they were willing to do the work and make changes in their own lives. Their example made it very difficult for me to deviate from the advice I was being given. If they had followed only part of the directions, what would I have done?


Some important points. My parents weren’t intimidated by my stubbornness. I was an adult and they let me go out into the world and find my own way. They stayed in touch, but only to offer support, not to enable. When they finally succeeded in getting me into treatment, they attended the family program, visited on weekends and followed the advice they were given. When I got out of treatment, they got involved in Al-anon.


Over the weeks and months that followed, we all got better. I worked a full-time job and continued my one-day-at-a time directions. My parents watched from a distance, but were quick to challenge my crazy thinking when it reared up every now and again. Together, we made our way to safe ground.


My father died an untimely death at 58, not long after the first anniversary of my sobriety. I’ll be forever grateful that he lived to see that much. He played an instrumental role in getting me back on the right track, not by force, but by love. Over the decades that followed, my mother has seen me go from derelict to something better than that and then something better still. Her constant faith and surprising wit have buoyed me up when nothing else would.


Their intervention paved the way for a life in recovery, a life beyond my imagining. None of us could have predicted how the years would unfold, but everyone could see the tragic path I’d been on. Their actions made all the difference.


If your loved one is suffering from addiction or mental health issues, it means you’re suffering right along with them. You don’t have to struggle alone. Professionals may not have a magic wand that will fix the problems overnight, but they do know the way out of the jungle. We can make it together.


Jeff Jay





Collegiate Recovery Program – University of Michigan

I’ve been impressed with this new program at the University of Michigan. Their support for students in recovery is more advanced and more comprehensive than similar programs around the country.


Check out their video.

Here’s some of the information provided by the Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP).


The Collegiate Recovery Program provides a supportive community within the campus culture that reinforces the decison to disengage from addictive behaviors

  • Educational opportunities alongside recovery support to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice one for the other
  • Accountability for students in recovery that comes from self, peers, and higher education staff
  • A normative college experience for students in recovery apart from the culture of drinking/use that is present on today’s campuses


Sounds good to me!



–Jeff Jay



HazelFest – Recovery Rocks — Hazelden

This is going to be a good time. HazelFest – Recovery Rocks is an outdoor music festival on Saturday June 15, 2013 in Center City, Minnesota. Friends, family, children and everyone is welcome for an all-day extravaganza that starts at 10AM.


Kristen JohnsonHeadliners include Kristen Johnson, emmy award winning actress, gb leighton, favorite Minnesota rocker, Communist Daughter, popular indie band and Nicholas David, from Season 3 of The Voice. Tickets are $10 in advance or $20 at the door. Children 12 and under free and you may register online.


This is the kind of event we love to see. Lots of recovering people getting out and having fun in the sun. The lineup is excellent and there will be family activities, food and all the good things you might expect on the lawn by the lake at Hazelden.


If you’re anywhere near the Twin Cities on June 15th, make it a point to grab some friends and family and head over to the Hazelden campus. All the information you need is available online here.







Crossroads Antigua

For many addicts, the shame of facing their illness is second only to their fear of going to treatment. They don’t want to leave home and they don’t want to get help with a group of strangers.


Imagine the relief the addicted person feels when he or she learns that their family has selected Eric Clapton’s treatment center, Crossroads, on the beautiful island of Antigua. The combination of first-class medical treatment with sea breezes and 12-Step recovery is a special gift.


Crossroads Antigua

Crossroads Antigua

I had the pleasure recently of taking another patient to Crossroads and spending time with Executive Officer, Kim Martin. Under her expert direction, the center has expanded its already extensive services, providing a warm and professional environment for the treatment of chemical dependency.


Many families think that Crossroads must be fabulously expensive, but nothing could be further from the truth. The treatment is very competitively priced and some scholarships are available for those who need it.


Others think that treatment in Antigua must be a glorified vacation, but this is not the case. A discussion with an admissions counselor and a look at the weekly schedule will dispel any ideas that patients will simply be lounging in the sun. Crossroads provides serious treatment for serious people in a beautiful setting.


Another benefit is the family program, offered once per month. It provided critical support and education for families, along with the opportunity to reconnect with their loved ones. What better place to begin again?


I’ve had a number of patients at Crossroads over the years, but every time I come back I wish there had been more. We use many treatment centers in our private practice, many of which are listed on this website. But Crossroads will always have a special place in my heart.


–Jeff Jay



Al-Anon Faces Alcoholism



The official magazine of Al-Anon (Al-Anon Faces Alcoholism) interviewed Debra Jay on the subject of alcoholism and intervention. This article represents one of the first times that an author and clinician specializing in intervention has been interviewed in this journal. The article can be read here: