KAUFMAN COUNTY, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – There are a number of mixed messages about marijuana these days.

Potential presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made headlines saying he would support legalizing the once illicit drug nationwide.

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However, North Texas addiction experts worry that normalizing marijuana use would send the wrong message to vulnerable teen and make it more difficult to counter the perception that it is not harmful, because it is legal.

“I think it’s important to really look at both sides of the issue,” says Dr. Ted Bender, CEO of The Treehouse, a Kaufman County substance abuse treatment center. “If we’re going to make this a norm in our society going forward, we really have to understand the positives and the negatives. One thing that we learned from the war on drugs is that it wasn’t very effective at all, in fact, it’s worse than it’s ever been.”

Dr. Bender acknowledges society’s views of marijuana has changed over time and he does acknowledge the positive benefits. ”

Components can be helpful for seizure disorders, and cancer patients. It does have the ability to reduce pain and inflammation.”

However, Dr. Bender also warns that marijuana is extremely harmful to the developing adolescent brain, and is still very much a gateway drug.

“I don’t think that there’s any confusion around that. Seventy to 80 percent of patients we treat, started with marijuana,” says Dr. Bender.

Travis Bennett was one of them. He said as a teen, alcohol and weed were his gateway drugs and a way to escape reality.

“It was my thought process,” admits Bennett. “Anything that could take me away from the way I was feeling, I wanted to do it. So you could have put anything in front of me and I would have done it.”

Bennett is now in recovery and helping others back to sobriety as a Treehouse recovery coach.

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“It’s the best feeling in the world, ” says Bennett. “You see the fog lift and the light come on.”

He admits that he found the 1980s era “Don’t Do Drugs” messages more funny than effective, but experts warn it would be a mistake to confuse ‘legal’ with ‘risk free’.

“The most disturbing study that I’ve seen to date regarding that, shows a shows clear evidence of increases in psychotic disorders later in life when adolescents start using at an early age,” says Dr. Bender. “If we see a significant rise in adolescent use of marijuana, I think we have a big problem on our hands.”

And other experts agree.

“Marijuana is a dangerous drug,” said Eric Niedermayer, CEO of Recovery Resource Council in a statement to CBS 11.

Niedermayer also went on to site research that affirms marijuana as a so-called “gateway drug” that leads to other drugs, including opioids.

“In addition, the chemical compound THC, is now found in higher levels in marijuana sold today. Regular use of marijuana has shown to negatively impact the still developing brains of adolescents and young adults,” says Neidermayer.

“Early use, and early heavy use in brain development causes a lot of problems later on,” adds Dr. Bender. “Learning disabilities, lowered IQ, psychotic disorders later in life, and this is not the kind of things we want to be exposing our children to.”

Many experts say more resources should be devoted to mental health issues that are often the underlying cause of many addictions.

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