A Parents’ Guide For Understanding Teens And Marijuana

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Photo: Summit Behavioral Health

Addiction Recovery Blog, Re-published with permission from Summit Behavioral Health
As more states across the U.S. are legalizing marijuana – for medical and/or recreational purposes – and as more teens are turning to pot in favor of cigarettes, the landscape has changed for parents who are trying to discourage their teenage children from smoking or eating the herbal drug.

So, since many states are legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, does that mean the substance is harmless, even for teenagers? Not exactly.

If you’re trying to keep your child from using marijuana, whether for behavioral purposes or because it might lead to experimentation with other substances, it’s certainly a different ballgame today than when you were their age. National sentiment has changed, laws have changed and behaviors related to teen drug use have changed.

With all of these factors in mind, parents don’t have it easy when it comes to their teens and marijuana use, either as a proactive measure or to see if there’s already a problem afoot. It’s a difficult, sometimes uncomfortable subject, but if approached and conducted properly, the whole family should be in a more stable place.

This is why we’ve created a guide for you, the parent, to talk to your teenage son or daughter about marijuana use. You may find many of the methods below to be helpful even with talking to your teens about other subjects they may not like talking about, such as schoolwork, relationships, etc. Use this guide to become more informed on the subject of teen marijuana use and to learn how to better facilitate discussions with your loved one.

Facts About Teen Marijuana Use
Before getting into how you should talk with your teenager about marijuana, we should delve into a few facts about the reality of the drug. While studies are constantly released on the subject and they sometimes contradict each other, what we can conclude is that marijuana isn’t as harmful as it was widely considered just a few decades ago.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that marijuana is completely benign for teens to use, or even that’s it’s legal to use. States that have legalized the drug recreationally still don’t let you purchase it until the age of 21, just like alcohol. Some teens are eligible to use it for medicinal purposes, if approved by the state, but for the most part, it remains illegal for teens to possess or consume.

The side effects of marijuana are different for all people, but some common short-term symptoms of the substance are:

  • Dizziness
  • Memory loss and decreased retention
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Trouble judging distances
  • Loss of motor coordination
  • Irritated lungs, including coughing or wheezing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Trouble finishing thoughts or solving problems
  • Poor decision making
  • Unsafe sexual behaviors

The effects of marijuana on teens depends on the potency of the drug, which can vary drastically from strain to strain, so it’s never certain how a single use of the drug is going to affect a teen. In most cases, teens will be interacting with marijuana that is unregulated, meaning there’s a chance it will be laced with another harmful substance or simply a stronger strain than what would be found in licensed dispensaries. Stronger strains of marijuana can increase the severity of some of the symptoms listed above.

Another factor to keep in mind is that, according to almost all studies, everyone’s brain is still developing until they reach the age of about 25. Extended substance use can disrupt the normal development of the brain. Marijuana is not the only substance implicated in this; alcohol, caffeine and, of course, harder substances are all capable of slowing one’s cognitive development.

Few researchers would agree that individuals can develop a chemical addiction to marijuana, although many observational studies have concluded that people can became psychologically or emotionally dependent on the substance.

So, you may hear advocates say that teen marijuana addiction is not an issue, but that’s not entirely true. If one has become a daily user of marijuana, it’s not an easy task to stop using it abruptly. Cutting it out of one’s daily routine can be just as difficult as dropping other elements of that routine, especially ones that have been in effect for years. This is why most drug rehabilitation centers across the country offer some form of “marijuana treatment” in order to break users’ dependence on the substance.

Long term marijuana use by teens has side effects including:

  • Respiratory problems (such as chronic cough or bronchitis)
  • Difficulties with physical activity
  • Sleeping issues
  • Decreased motivation or interest
  • A slight drop in IQ
  • Memory recall difficulties
  • Mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety and psychosis), especially when not under the influence
  • Increased risk of side effects from medication for mental health conditions

Driving Under The Influence Of Marijuana
Many different activities can impair one’s driving, such as being under the influence of alcohol or constantly looking at a smartphone. Using marijuana prior to or during driving is certainly one of those dangerous factors, as well. Marijuana usually slows down the user’s perception of depth, time, motion and sounds. It’s also impairs coordination and concentration.

It’s not uncommon for people who have used marijuana and driven a vehicle to have actually traveled below the speed limit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were driving safely. Since marijuana impairs reaction time, those under the influence have a harder time stopping ahead of or swerving around unforeseen obstacles in the road.

A good case study is to look at Colorado, one of the two states to first legalize recreational marijuana. In the first year since pot became available at retail stores in the state, 94 people died in crashes where at least one driver tested positive for marijuana. That was more than the 71 such deaths in the year prior.

In 2009, about 10 percent of all traffic fatalities in Colorado involved a driver who had marijuana in his or her system. That number rose to 19 percent in the first year of pot being available recreationally. In all fairness, though, the total number of traffic fatalities continued to remain significantly lower than the state’s high of 743 in 2002.

This means that recreational pot hasn’t caused a drastic uptick in the number of traffic deaths in Colorado. Some would argue that more of the population is using marijuana since it’s legal in the state, and this would explain the increase in percentage of its role in fatal accidents. Also, the way law enforcement and medical examiners test for marijuana means traces of the drug can be discovered days or even a couple of weeks after the driver last consumed it, so it’s difficult to tell how many of the drivers were actively high when they got into a crash.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that using pot and then getting into the driver’s seat makes anyone a better driver. It simply appears to be one of the many inhibitors of fully attentive driving.

In Colorado, recreational and medical marijuana users can be penalized alike for being found under the influence or having an open container of the drug (or a container with a broken seal). Anyone suspected to be under the influence of marijuana may be asked to take a blood test. Drivers with five or more nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the most potent chemical in marijuana) can be prosecuted for driving under the influence (DUI) in Colorado. If your state allows medical and/or recreational marijuana, you can see driving regulations by visiting your state’s department of transportation, which you can find with this directory.

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See also:

Alarming Facts About Marijuana and Synthetic Marijuana Use in Adolescents

Greenwich Police and Stamford Teen Warn about Vaping: Blackened Tongues, Exploding Devices

Teens & Drugs: Q&A with Police, GEMS, GHS Health Teacher and Mom Whose Son Died of Heroin OD

GHS Grads Break Silence on Drugs from Marijuana to Heroin


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