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/cannabis remains illegal under federal law. However, many states have legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. As laws and attitudes 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 56.6 percent of youth aged 12-17 in a nationally represented survey said 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. This development is rapid and exciting, but also leaves teen brains more vulnerable to marijuana’s harmful effects. Research shows the short-term or immediate effects can include difficulty thinking and problem solving, problems with memory and learning, impaired coordination, difficulty maintaining attention, increased heart rate, and anxiety.
Since the brain is still developing, the damage from youth marijuana use can potentially be permanent. Potential long-term effects include difficulty coping with emotions, lung problems like chronic cough or bronchitis, dependence (addiction), increased anxiety, depression, and even schizophrenia, especially in teens that are already vulnerable because of family history and other factors.
Marijuana is Stronger Today than Ever Before
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 cannabis/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%. In fact, the potency of marijuana has increased more than 3.5 times just since 1995. 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, and depending on the process used, can contain anywhere from 39% THC to over 80% THC. The risks of physical dependence and addiction increase with exposure to high concentrations of THC, and higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis.
Young People are More Vulnerable to Addiction than Adults
Because young people’s brains are still developing into their mid-20s, they build synapses faster than adult brains as they develop. Addiction/dependence is a form of learning, so adolescents can become addicted to marijuana – like other drugs – more easily than adults. Marijuana affects the brain’s reward system, which considerably increases the likelihood of addiction/dependence for those who start using the drug young. 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.
Youth and Impaired Driving
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.
Marijuana is Easier to Access
The 2022 Missouri Student Survey found that more than 1 in 4 students in the Northland believed marijuana was “easy to get.” Whether it’s ordered from the internet, bought, or given 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, including increasing teen access to marijuana, from Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
Increased Risk of Mental Health Issues
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. As mentioned above, the risks of physical dependence and addiction increase with exposure to high concentrations of THC, and higher doses of THC are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis.
What Can Parents Do?
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 the harms of marijuana use, 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, including marijuana/cannabis, is much lower.
Educate yourself and others about the harmful effects of marijuana/cannabis (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.
Care Action Steps:
- Learn more about how dopamine and drugs like marijuana impact the vulnerable adolescent brain.
- Read this important letter to parents so you can be informed and advocate for the health of your child.
- Review the risk factors that increase the risk of addiction and use this information to inform how you protect your child. Build protective factors where you can.
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 valued and heard, and that adults are on their side.
Connect Action Steps:
- This TED Talk explores practical ideas for anyone who wants to create connections with kids.
- Meaningful Meals Kit: Kids who have meals with their family on a regular basis are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including substance use! Our Tools page here at Parent Up has a great kit with tools, tips, and resources to help parents make meals more meaningful with their kids and teens. Utilizing this kit can help you maximize the benefits of regular family meals, which includes reducing the likelihood of youth marijuana use!
- Set aside regular one-on-one time with your child to bond and have fun together.
- Brainstorm healthy ways to manage the stress in their life with your child (like getting more sleep, going outdoors, having “unplugged” time from the internet, etc.). Be open to your child’s suggestions and help them think through some ideas.
- Finding that connecting with your teen is difficult? Try these tips.
Download our free handout, “How to Talk to Your Teen about Marijuana (And Actually Get Somewhere).” You can also visit our Communication 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. Finding out what your child knows and thinks first will help you know where to start your conversations about marijuana.
Communicate Action Steps:
- Be clear and focus on the risks of marijuana use on your child’s health and safety. Let your child know you love them and don’t want anything bad to happen to them.
- Take a stand and let your child know you disapprove of any drug or alcohol use, no exceptions. Explain to them that marijuana is harmful to their developing brains, can lead to addiction, and can even lead to legal consequences.
- Use “teachable moments” to start conversations about marijuana. Use public service announcements, stories on the news, TV plot lines, pop culture or current issues at school or in the community to spur on conversation.
- Frequently talk, and listen, to your child about how things are going in their life.
Try to find time to talk and really connect with your child every day.
Here are some things to say to your child about marijuana:
- “There’s a lot of information about marijuana out there but I want you to come to me with your questions.”
- “If you’re concerned about your friends using marijuana, let me know and we can talk about it.” (In Missouri, more than 1 in 3 youth (34.5%) had at least one friend who smoked marijuana.)
- “There’s a lot of information about marijuana out there, but I want you to know that it is never okay for kids to use.”
- “Your brain is growing and marijuana isn’t good for growing brains.”
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.
Careful Attention Action Steps:
Signs that Your Child Might Be Using Marijuana/Cannabis
- Looking “stoned” – glassy, red eyes. Out of it. Slurred speech.
- Dry mouth
- Decreased personal hygiene from what was “normal” for them
- Smell – marijuana has a very “skunky” type smell
Changes in Behavior
- Disrupted learning and memory
- A drop in grades and/or quitting activities
- Difficulty with thinking and problem solving
- Less openness and honesty
- Worsening relationships with family
- Increased appetite – “munchies” – beyond what is normal for your child
- More tired and less motivated than what is normal for your child
- Health and/or sleep issues that are not normal for your child
- Inappropriate laughter
- Distorted perception (sights, sounds, time, touch)
- Loss of motor coordination
- Heavy use of breath mints, mouthwash, gum and/or eye drops
- Use of incense or other deodorizers in bedroom
- Rolling papers, bong, pipe, and/or vaping equipment – A good rule of thumb is, if you see anything you don’t recognize, it’s time to start asking questions and doing research.
Know or suspect someone who might be providing marijuana/cannabis to teens?
You can send the Marijuana Parent Up Warning Letter to the adults at the residence informing them of the harm it does to youth and asking them to stop.
Worried your child may be using cannabis?
- 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)