by Jane Parent
For parents who had convinced their teens not to use marijuana, the conversation just got a lot more complicated. Nearly two dozen states have legalized marijuana for medical use. In 2013, Colorado and Washington went even further, legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults. And as many as fourteen more states may pass laws legalizing pot by 2017. We asked experts how to talk to our teens about marijuana, in light of these new laws and changing societal attitudes.
“Relax—it’s just pot.” There’s a perception among teens—and some parents—that marijuana is harmless. “If pot’s legal now, then I think some of my friends might not be so concerned with the cons,” says 18-year-old Olivia.
Indeed, in this year’s Monitoring the Future survey, which is funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse, the percentage of teens who said smoking pot was risky dropped below 40 percent. “The new laws in Colorado and Washington seem to say, “Pot is really no big deal, and this is exactly the wrong message for teens to hear,” notes Stephen J. Pasierb, chief executive officer of The Partnership at drugfree.org. “The tween and teen years are the most critical from a developmental point of view to introduce a substance that interferes with brain functions.”
Brain science tells us that the human brain is not fully formed until about age 24. THC, the active ingredient in pot, can impact memory and learning. “This is not a legal or a moral issue— it’s about brain development. Ask your teen if they really want to play Russian roulette with their brain,” adds Pasierb. Dr. Ellen Rome, head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, agrees that marijuana use by teens can have long-lasting negative impact on the structure and function of still developing brains: “Marijuana use affects the healthy formation of the prefrontal cortex and can interfere with the brain’s ability to transfer information from short term to long term memory.”
“Pot isn’t addictive.” “Research supports the conclusion that marijuana is physically addictive,” explains Dr. Rome. In fact, statistics show that around 10 percent of adult users become dependent on marijuana. But because the symptoms can be mild—they include chronic lack of appetite— we may not notice when a teen is dealing with a marijuana addiction.
“People have a certain expectation of what addiction looks like, and with pot, the symptoms may not be as dramatic as they are for other drugs like heroin or methamphetamine,” notes Arthur Schut, President and CEO of Arapahoe House treatment facilities in Colorado. One thing is certain, however: marijuana dependence is “the primary reason for adolescent admissions to drug treatment,” says Schut. And marijuana dependence is now becoming an issue much earlier. Says Pasierb: “The average age of first drug use is in the early teen years.”
“It’s not even illegal anymore.” Sure, adults over the age of 21 may purchase marijuana for recreational use in Colorado. But possession of marijuana is still illegal and criminal under federal law—and possession by a minor remains illegal everywhere.
“It’s safe—people use it as medicine.” The American Medical Association considers marijuana to be a dangerous drug and a public health concern. Smoking pot “poses the same health risks of lung cancer and emphysema as smoking tobacco,” says Dr. Rome. It’s pretty simple, Pasierb advises, for parents to tell their teens “if you don’t have cancer or multiple sclerosis or glaucoma, then you don’t take medicine for diseases you don’t have.”
“Didn’t you smoke pot when you were young?” Experts differ on whether parents should be honest about their own pot use, but whatever you decide, Pasierb cautions against moralistic or preachy arguments. “They simply don’t resonate with teenagers,” he notes. Instead, redirect the conversation to ask your teen why he or she thinks marijuana is a good choice for them.
“You can’t stop me.” What to do when a teen is adamant? At a minimum, urge the teen to wait until they’re in their mid-20s, when the brain is fully developed. That’s what Dr. Sanjay Gupta told his millions of viewers on CNN last summer, when he so publicly changed his mind on medical marijuana. Societal attitudes about marijuana are definitely changing, but that still doesn’t mean teenagers should be using it. The best prevention, say the experts, is to keep talking and listening regularly, being directly involved in your teen’s life, and making it clear that you do not want him or her using marijuana.
Jane Parent is a freelance writer in Northeast Ohio and regular contributor to Your Teen.