Marijuana Use among Teens: What they – and their parents – should know

| Posted On Jun 02, 2015 | By:

Marijuana and teensDo you have a teen or tween in your household? Well, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that the 2014 Monitoring the Future Survey of drug use and attitudes among US students (the survey has been administered to 8th, 10th, and 12th graders annually since 1975) shows significant declines in the use of drugs (prescription, OTC and illegal), alcohol and cigarettes. Phew!

So what’s the bad news? Although marijuana use among teens has remained relatively unchanged over the past several years, there continues to be a change in the perception of the risks of using marijuana – and it’s not for the better. According to the survey, the majority of high school seniors do not think regular marijuana smoking is harmful, with only 36.1% saying that regular use puts the user at great risk compared to 52.4% five years ago.

It’s very worrisome that kids and adults alike don’t think marijuana use among teens is so bad. But it is.

Where did this attitude come from?

First, in the US we have taken several steps over the years to change the legal status for marijuana use. Starting with the decriminalization of marijuana for adults and then its legalized use for medical reasons, there’s now the newest movement to legalize marijuana for recreational use, already legal in four states. If it’s no longer illegal to use it, and in fact it has some medicinal “halo” surrounding it, it’s easy to see why the perception that marijuana is “not that bad” or “benign” has infiltrated our society, even though these changes apply almost entirely to marijuana use by adults.

Among young adults, it’s important to acknowledge that marijuana is a force in pop culture today. Pop icons like Lil Wayne, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake are very open and vocal about marijuana use. When you think about the fact that two of those icons started as Disney kids, a implicit message of acceptance and safety is transmitted to our kids.

We do hear from some parents that they are very worried about their kids’ use – they found it, they think their child is using it, and they want to partner with us as their child’s care team to “fix this.”   On the other side are the parents who don’t believe it’s dangerous at all – “I smoked it in the ‘70’s a little and I’m fine” – and it doesn’t get addressed with the same level of urgency.

What You Should Know about Today’s Marijuana

Today’s marijuana is 3-5 times MORE potent than the marijuana of the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s. We know this through criminal seizures of product and testing done by the FDA to confirm the levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the mind-altering chemical that is found in marijuana. Changes in cultivation have created these far more potent strains that carry a high street value. Today, the therapeutic content is almost gone and the intoxicant, addictive component is at an all-time high.

Another problem with marijuana is that, unlike alcohol, it isn’t regulated by the government. In the case of alcohol, we know how long it takes to metabolize and leave the body. Marijuana can have different levels of THC, so the effect it has on your basic functioning can be highly variable. It’s fascinating that kids of this generation totally get the message “you shouldn’t drink and drive,” yet they don’t believe driving while using marijuana is a problem.

So what does marijuana do to the teenage brain?

According to an article published by Loyola Medicine, teens who smoke marijuana are at risk of dangerous brain and health disorders. Marijuana is an addictive substance and is the most common substance addiction being treated in adolescents in rehabilitation centers across the country.

From a neurological perspective, research has demonstrated that the adolescent brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex areas controlling judgment and decision-making (basically, the part of the brain that tells you to “stop and think first” and edits or regulates your behavior) is not fully developed in a person until 25 or 26 years of age. Most teens start smoking at 15 or 16, so they are much more vulnerable to the addictive qualities of all drugs, including marijuana.

The dangers of smoking marijuana as an adolescent are:

What Should Parents Do?

As early as 11 or 12, before your child even reaches the risky age range of 15 or 16 years old, start making clear statements of belief, and set expectations and consequences about drug use. The more your beliefs and attitudes are known by your child before he or she is considering using drugs, the more you can create a “pause, stop and think” mechanism with your child. And take it a step farther: if your child is watching a show where they show or talk about drugs or alcohol or any risky behaviors, use that as an opening to state or restate those beliefs and have a conversation with your child.

It’s also important to proactively and positively address and talk about the “influencers and pushers” in your child’s life that may lead to any drug use, marijuana use included. Aside from peer pressure, that ubiquitous culprit for experimentation, stress and anxiety can be strong motivators for kids to use drugs to escape. And the stress level of the average teen has never been so high. Kids today are measured at every stage of their academic lives. There’s pressure to get into higher-education schools, and the way to do that often leads to overload and stress from multiple venues – school, sports and other activities, social and community commitments…the list goes on and on. Having a good sense of the stress level of your teen has never been more critical.

While the key is to open the lines of communication with your son or daughter, that may sound easier said than done. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has a free Marijuana Talk Kit that you can download from their website. This kit includes the facts you need to know about marijuana, the risks for teens, tips on how to talk to your teen about marijuana and how to respond to their questions.

And by all means, use your child’s pediatrician and medical team to be your sounding board, your counsel and your advocate in your fight to keep your children safe.

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About Dr. Julie Jankelson and Erica Savino Moffatt, NP

Dr. Julie Jankelson is a pediatrician at our Harvard practice. She received her medical degree from Tufts Medical School in 1986 and completed her residency at Boston Floating Hospital in the primary care program. She joined Concord Hillside Medical Associates in 1999, which in turn joined Harvard Vanguard in 2001. Dr. Jankelson was born in Boston and grew up in the suburbs. She currently lives in Acton with her husband. They have 2 children and 3 (crazy) dogs. Erica Savino Moffatt, NP, joined the Department of Behavioral Health at Harvard Vanguard Concord in 2013. She received her BA in Psychology from Saint Anselm College, Manchester, NH in 2000; her MA in Mental Health & Behavioral Medicine from Boston University School of Medicine in 2005; and her MS in Nursing from Boston College Connell School of Nursing in 2010. She is a LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor), RN and NP. Before joining Harvard Vanguard, Erica worked as a community mental health therapist/prescriber, a psychiatric crisis worker and a psychiatric medical researcher (sleep, child psychiatry) for 15 years.

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