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Although it has been decriminalized and even made quasi-legal in some states, the dangers of marijuana have not gone away.

That was the message March 27 in Annandale at a presentation made by the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County titled “Marijuana Harmless? Think Again.”

Community leaders including health care professionals, counselors and law enforcement officials joined parents and students who related their own unfortunate experiences with marijuana and other drugs.

“My life is still being written,” said Chris Leibowitz, 26, of battling a marijuana addiction that began at age 13 and developed into an addiction to painkillers and eventually heroin. “I knew something was wrong. I wasn’t denying it,” he said. “If you have ever set a line in the sand and then crossed it, then set another one and crossed that one, you are out of control and deep down you know it. You just have to act on that knowledge.”

Lori Shapiro of Fairfax said her son Jacob, 21, also was out of control with a drug addiction that she says began with marijuana.

Shapiro said that when her son began using marijuana in college his grades began to drop, his interest in sports began to wane, and he withdrew from his family.

“He became a totally different kid,” she said. “My husband worked for the DEA and we thought we had him brainwashed, but that’s how wrong we were.”

Shapiro said that beginning with marijuana use, her son soon graduated to taking ecstasy, ketamine, opium and cocaine, and even chugging cough syrup.

“In July of 2011, he attempted suicide by taking 20 Xanax pills,” she said. “Luckily he was unsuccessful and stayed five days in the mental ward of a Fairfax County hospital instead.”

Jacob Shapiro is in his third year of recovery, and his mother said marijuana was to blame for his descent into harder drugs. “Marijuana was at the core of all this,” she said. “That’s what he started with, and now you know that this drug is not harmless.”

Dr. William Hauda, an emergency physician at Inova Fairfax Hospital Center, concurs.

“Cannabinoid receptors are greatest during adolescence,” he said. “And persistent marijuana use is associated with a greater decline in cognitive ability. Physiologically, teens should not be using marijuana.”

According to Jim Cox of the narcotics squad of the Fairfax County Police Department, marijuana today has been manipulated and genetically engineered to produce much higher levels of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, making its addictive properties much more of a danger than marijuana from the 1980s or 1990s.

“Today, marijuana plants can contain as much as 33 percent THC,” he said. “And kids are not just smoking THC. They find other ways to ingest it, such as using ‘marijuana butter’ to make Rice Krispies treats with.”

According to George Young, director of outpatient services at the Northern Virginia National Counseling Group, average levels of THC in marijuana have increased more than 400 percent in just the last eight years.

“THC in marijuana is measured in nanograms,” he said. In 2006, the average nanogram level was 162. In 2014, it is 693.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com