'A Perfect Storm' for Creating Drug Addicts

The scene was a shocking one: Children, 2 and 4, inhaled deeply on a marijuana cigarette with encouragement from their 18-year-old uncle.

The incident, recorded on videotape by another juvenile, aired widely on cable news stations and eventually led to the two Fort Worth, Texas, toddlers being sent to foster care.

According to Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Tarrant County Child Protective Services, doctors examining the children after the incident said any marijuana they may have ingested would not have any long-term effects.

However, child psychology and addiction experts said that the episode could have troubling implications for the future psychology and health of these young victims.

"The consequences are very serious and a great concern," said David Farb, chairman of Boston University's Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

"It's hard to imagine there not being some kind of change," he said. "My opinion is that the risk of addiction would be higher."

A Toxic Environment

Most troubling, child psychology experts said, is the fact that such an episode was allowed to occur in the first place.

"The biggest danger to these kids is the lack of parental oversight, in the long run," said Dr. Neil Hochstadt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

Such a permissive environment, if sustained, could open the door for future dangerous and addictive behavior.

"Young children are forming images of what they want to be, and when someone in a position of authority or control approves of drug use, I think there is a great concern for a future of addictive behavior," Farb said.

The concern could underscore the importance of foster care -- a situation which could last indefinitely until a suitable relative's home is found for the children.

"Intervention, education and putting these children in a different environment may later on give these children a good start," Farb said.

However, the lingering question of how often these children were exposed to illicit substances begs the biological question of whether damage has already been done.

A Recipe for Future Addiction?

Farb said that he is thus far unaware of any studies about the early age at which these children were exposed to marijuana and their future chances of abuse or addiction.

"Would exposure at a young age result in more profound biochemical changes in the nervous system?" he asked. "That's something that right now we can't answer with any certainty."

However, he said the ways in which drugs work on the brains of both young and old users create a worrying scenario.

Like many other illicit drugs, marijuana has chemical compounds that activate the reward center in the brain. Exposure to the drug could create a chemical "hook" that could lead to addictive behavior.

Even more worrying is the possibility that the videotaped episode was not the first instance of exposure for these children.

"Repeated exposure is an important factor," Farb said, adding that with marijuana, the effects may become greater with repeated use -- a process known as sensitization.

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