We’re talking about marijuana, THC, cannabis, weed, pot, or any of the other terms used to describe the drug derived from the Cannabis Sativa or Cannabis Indica plant. Sale or possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. However, many states have legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. As laws and norms change, it is easy to confuse the facts about the drug’s impact on brain development and public health. Marijuana is often one of the first drugs a teen is offered and 78 percent of teens say that they have close friends who use marijuana. This new landscape makes it even more crucial that we’re clear on one fact: No amount of marijuana use among youth is safe.
What are the Risks to Youth?
Unlike adults, the teen brain is still developing and, on average, will not be fully developed until their mid-20s. Marijuana use during this period may harm the developing teen brain. Research shows the effects can include difficulty thinking and problem solving, problems with memory and learning, impaired coordination, and difficulty maintaining attention. Since the brain is still developing, the damage from youth marijuana use can potentially be permanent.
Marijuana is currently available in multiple forms and consumed by youth through edibles, smoking, and vaping. The THC concentration (the substance responsible for the “high”) in commonly cultivated marijuana plants has increased three-fold in recent years. While the average THC concentration in the 1960s was 1% to 4%, dispensaries are selling products with average THC concentrations between 17.7% and 23.2%. Concentrated marijuana extracts, commonly known as dabs or waxes, are far more widely available to the public today and sold through dispensaries. These extracts can deliver extremely large amounts of THC to the body when vaped or smoked.
Because young people’s brains are still developing into their mid-20s, they build synapses faster than adult brains as they develop. Addiction is a form of learning, so adolescents can get addicted more easily than adults. Research shows that about 1 in 6 teens who repeatedly use marijuana can become addicted. This means they may unsuccessfully try to quit using marijuana, may want to use marijuana despite negative consequences, or will voluntarily pass up events with family and friends to use marijuana.
There is a common, yet false, perception among users of marijuana that they “drive safer” when they’re high. Driving while impaired by any substance, including marijuana (medical or otherwise), is dangerous. Marijuana negatively affects a number of skills required for safe driving, including reaction time, coordination, and concentration. Couple that with inexperienced teen drivers, who think driving high is “safe,” and the outcomes could be potentially tragic. Additionally, teens who use marijuana are more likely to be a passenger of an impaired driver.
The 2020 Missouri Student Survey found that an average of 31.6% of students in the Northland believed marijuana was “easy to get.” Whether it’s ordered from the internet, bought, or given to youth by a friend or their own family members, marijuana is easier for youth to access now than ever before, especially in states where legalization has occurred. Learn more about how marijuana legalization impacts youth use from Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
Marijuana can negatively affect a teen’s mental health. Issues such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis are more common in teen marijuana users than their non-using peers, especially if marijuana-using teens have higher risk factors, like a family history of mental illness. Marijuana-using teens are also at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than their non-using peers. Having mental health issues can also lead teens to try to cope with marijuana, despite the fact that marijuana use can negatively impact mental health. According to a couple of studies, “Teens dealing with a social anxiety disorder are more likely to start using marijuana at an earlier age.”
The rules you set, the relationships you build, and the conversations you have about marijuana and other drugs make a BIG difference in the decisions teens make. Kids who learn about the risks of marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs from their parents, and know their parents’ no-use expectations, are HALF as likely to ever use these drugs compared to their peers.
In order to protect your child from vaping, Parent Up encourages parents to CARE, CONNECT, COMMUNICATE and pay CAREFUL ATTENTION. While this strategy is no guarantee, if implemented consistently and with intention, the likelihood of your child engaging in any substance use is much lower.
Educate yourself and others about the harmful effects of marijuana (and all drug use) on the developing brain and make it a priority to protect your child from engaging in any substance use. Start early and let your child know you care about their health and safety, and that you are speaking from a place of concern, love, and support. These are tricky conversations and difficult situations to navigate with your kids, but a little work on the front end can protect your child’s health and safety for years to come.
Connection is the best prevention. Kids that have stable, consistent and healthy relationships with adults are more likely to make safer decisions and live healthier lives. It’s important that parents, and other caring adults, take time to listen, pay attention, spend time, and follow up with the kids in their lives. When we are connected, we can better understand their feelings and motivations. Kids are more willing to listen when they feel like you are on their side.
Connect Action Steps:
Visit our Talking Guides for tips on how to have conversations with your child about any substance use, depending on their age. Keep in mind that the average age a child in Missouri first uses marijuana is age 14. Having open and honest conversations about this topic, before and after this age, is important for preventing youth use. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, teens are less likely to try marijuana if they can ask parents for help when times are hard or stressful, and when they know how their parents feel about drug use.
Make it clear to your child that you don’t approve of them using marijuana, but be curious and open-minded about their experiences. Ask them what they think about marijuana. Their answer may surprise you. It’s more important – and effective– to listen and discuss rather than to lecture. Instead of interrogating your child about whether or not they’ve used marijuana, it’s easier to start a conversation by asking what they’ve heard about it at school or if they’ve seen other kids using it.
As a general rule, know where your kids are at and who they are with. Check in with your teenager before and after they go out. You can use our helpful “Going Out” Checklist. Watch for any early signs or symptoms of marijuana use and be on alert for changes in behaviors, friend groups, or attitudes.
Changes in Behavior
Marijuana Talk Kit from The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids
Marijuana Facts: What Parents Need to Know from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
What to Do if You Catch Your Child Smoking Marijuana from American Addiction Centers
How Much Do You Know about Edibles? quiz from Just Think Twice (NIDA)
Vaping Marijuana: What You Should Know from Just Think Twice (NIDA)
Marijuana Concentrates: How Much Do You Know? from Just Think Twice (NIDA)
What is CBD? from Just Think Twice (NIDA)
Marijuana Risks: Build a Brain (1 minute)
Teen Brain Development (3 minutes)
The Reward Circuit: How the Brain Responds to Natural Rewards and Drugs (2 minutes)
The Swiss Cheese Model of Drug Addiction (2 minutes)
Park Hill Community Alliance For Youth
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