Massachusetts is now among eight U.S. states to legalize marijuana for adult (21+) recreational use, a decision that’s created a relaxed stance on use of the drug and left many parents worried. The simple, clear and empowering message we suggest parents share with teens is that avoidance of marijuana is best and here’s why.
Marijuana is harmful to adolescents.
Repeated use of marijuana during the critical windows of brain growth and development of adolescence is associated with anatomic changes in the brain, drops in IQ, serious mental-health disorders and overall poorer functioning. While these harms are dose dependent, there is no known “safe” level of use for adolescents, and some studies have found poor outcomes in teens that used marijuana 50 times in their life — an average of just once a month during high school.
Anyone can overdose on marijuana.
Marijuana can cause acute psychotic reactions, particularly among inexperienced users or in high doses. In today’s marketplace, where the term “marijuana” can refer to anything from dried plant leaves to highly concentrated oils, overdose is becoming more common. Unfortunately, psychotic reactions can lead to suicide or injury, and in some cases, psychotic symptoms do not fully resolve.
Marijuana is addictive.
Marijuana is addictive, although the clinical picture is distinct from other drugs. The long half-life of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, results in only mild withdrawal symptoms. And, like nicotine, overdose is not common. Nonetheless, many marijuana users find they are unable to quit beyond a few weeks. Some adolescents who use marijuana heavily feel as if a short period of abstinence “proves” that they are in control of their use, but in most cases, continuation of marijuana use after a short period more likely indicates just the opposite.
Marijuana is not necessarily safer than alcohol.
Comparing the health effects of different substances is like comparing apples to oranges. Each substance has its own risk profile. Alcohol use results in injuries, accidents and can result in brain changes when used over time; tobacco use is associated with physical-health problems that are well known; and for marijuana, the action is in the brain. The relationships between marijuana use and mental-health disorders and poorer functional outcomes are well established, although they can be harder to recognize than alcohol overdose or lung cancer.
But even if we accept one set of health consequences as better or worse than another, suggesting that teens use marijuana instead of alcohol is a misguided strategy. Marijuana and alcohol use go together. While one substance may be substituted for another on a given occasion, teens that use marijuana are much more likely to also drink alcohol and use other drugs.
Learn more about the Boston Children’s Hospital Adolescent Substance Abuse Program.
About the blogger: Sharon Levy, MD, MPH, is director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and an associate professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.