Smoke screen: new scientific research challenges marijuana’s “safe” reputation

Is smoking marijuana more harmful than most people think?

After nearly a decade of declining popularity, marijuana use among teenagers is on the rise—at a time when use of the drug is becoming more socially acceptable and has an increasingly benign reputation. According to a study released by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, 25 percent of U.S. teens reported smoking marijuana in the last month, up 6 percent from previous years.

Coincidentally, marijuana’s popularity boost is being reported just as science sheds new light on its harmful effects. The British Medical Journal recently released a study showing young people who smoke marijuana regularly double their risk of developing psychotic symptoms as they grow older. It’s one of many studies published in the past few weeks indicating that marijuana may not be as benign a drug as some people think.

“In terms of perceived danger, marijuana repeatedly gets a free ride because of a common misconception that it’s non-addictive and doesn’t contribute to any serious health issues,” says John Knight, MD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research(CeASAR). “I think many teenagers and their parents would be surprised to learn that medical science tells a very different story.”

The BMJ study took place over the course of a decade, monitoring the marijuana use and reported mental health of 2,000 young people throughout the years. Researchers discovered that participants who had never smoked pot and had no prerecorded psychotic symptoms were almost twice as likely to report psychotic symptoms later in life if they started using marijuana during adolescence.

“Exposure to cannabinoids during critical stages of development can change both the function and structure of the brain, possibly forever.”

-Dr. Knight

“Kids who smoke marijuana during development are far more likely to suffer from a devastating mental disorder like addiction, schizophrenia, depression or anxiety, sometimes by as much as 5 or 6 percent,” says Knight. “This latest study is further evidence that exposure to cannabinoids during critical stages of development can change both the function and structure of the brain, possibly forever.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the U.S., and 28.5 million Americans over the age of 12 have abused it in the past year. When you combine these staggering numbers with new research on the drug’s ability to impact development and eventual health, marijuana’s recent spike in popularity could have serious repercussions for the future.

“We need to help our children understand the real dangers associated with pot, especially as it relates to their development and health as they grow towards adulthood,” says Knight. “Otherwise, as this generation grows older, we’re going to see a sharp increases in mental illness rates and the associated burdens of high treatment costs and human misery that goes with it.”