On New Year’s Eve, CNN fielded reporters all over the country to cover and arguably, to define how Americans celebrate. A report from a “puff, pass and paint” party in Denver, in which revelers flaunted their marijuana use, caught the attention of millions of viewers and became a subject of discussion nationally.
The arrival of marijuana in the realm of legal and now socially-accepted substances, strengthens the message that substance use is required for having a good time.Showcasing marijuana use on national television is relatively new following the recent liberalization of marijuana policy in several states and the novelty incited significant coverage. But the underlying message that strives to define substance use as a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) component of celebration is anything but new.
In fact, incessant references to drinking and being drunk have been part of popular film and television culture for decades and now usually goes largely unnoticed. We seem to have accepted that being drunk is synonymous to having a good time, though this message which has its roots in the alcohol industry is more the work of years of successful advertising campaigns than a biologically based truth.
The arrival of marijuana in the realm of legal and now socially-accepted substances, further strengthens the message that substance use is required for having a good time which is already implicitly accepted. This notion risks causing significant harms to our kids and deserves closer scrutiny.
Substance use and teens: The real risks
All psychoactive substances — from alcohol to marijuana to cocaine and heroin — have one thing in common; they activate the brain’s pleasure and reward center by connecting directly with the neurons responsible for the experience of pleasure. In a sense, they are all capable of “hijacking” the body’s natural system for reward, which normally uses a much more complex system relying on the internal cues to fire. For most substances, the pleasurable sensation depends on the amount of substance used and levels off somewhere in the small to moderate range. Biologically speaking, small doses of psychoactive substances enhance pleasure: that’s why they often go hand in hand with celebrations. But there is also a cost. Intoxication slows our reflexes, impairs our judgment and puts us at risk for accidents, injuries and other untoward events. This is true for alcohol, and also for marijuana. And no group is more vulnerable than adolescents.
There are other problems too. Above a certain threshold, increasing the dose of alcohol, marijuana or any other substance results in more side effects and without substantially increasing the firing in the brain’s reward center, to the point where it becomes nearly impossible for the brain to take in the pleasurable effects of the substance. Very large doses are associated with myriad negative consequences including overdose. So why is celebration associated with being “drunk,” “blasted,” “wasted”? That is more a product of advertising than of biology.
If you are over the age of 30, chances are the idea of getting “wasted” will not seem as appealing to you as it does to adolescents and young adults. The desire to experience ever more stimulating experiences is a function of normal brain development during adolescence. The brain’s reward center matures during early adolescence while the prefrontal cortices that are the center of the executive functions that check behavior are not finished maturing until the middle of the third decade of life. This pushes younger people to seek ever more neurologically rewarding experiences without much regard for consequences and places adolescents at particular risk for substance use disorders, following a period of use. The addictive properties of alcohol, nicotine and marijuana are well-established and teens who drink, smoke or vape are much more likely to experiment with stronger, illicit drugs. Science also shows us that teens are particularly sensitive to the influence of peers and advertising.
Mass media glorification is harmful
The legalization of marijuana in a number of states, the rapidly proliferating online blogs and websites that glorify the advantages of marijuana while minimizing its harmful effects and mass media promotion of marijuana such as CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage are having predictable effects. Only 29 percent of high school seniors think that regular use of marijuana is harmful; that represents a 50 percent decline over the past 20 years. After all, how bad can marijuana be if the staff at CNN tells us how wonderful it is and that “everyone” uses it?
Predictably, as perceived risk of harm has fallen the number of young adults who use marijuana on a daily basis has soared, and in states where marijuana is legal for adult use, the number of teens experiencing paranoia, hallucinations and other harms related to marijuana use, and particularly heavy use, is increasing rapidly.
What you can do to help
There is good news: parents, physicians and other adults can also influence young people, particularly if we are aware of and attentive to the public discourse around marijuana and other substances. News coverage is a wonderful opportunity to start a non-threatening conversation in which parents can share their thoughts and values with their own children. The very successful Truth campaign exposed how tobacco companies exploited customers for profit; exposing the push and pull of the alcohol and marijuana industries, and the interests of media that in many cases are supported by them may be similarly enlightening. Even a simple understanding of the harmful effects of marijuana on the developing brain can enhance the conversation and ignite opportunities for mutual exploration and information gathering.
New Year’s Eve and other celebrations come and go and titillate us with their fireworks, but they cannot overshadow the constant presence of parents and other caring adults who, at the end of the day, wield much more influence over their children than celebrity news reporters or marketing executives.
Learn more about Boston Children’s Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program.
About the bloggers: Dr. Nicholas Chadi is a pediatrician and researcher specialized in adolescent medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is currently the first fellow in pediatric addiction medicine in North America. Dr. Sharon Levy is a pediatrician and researcher specialized in pediatric addiction medicine. She is the director of the Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program (ASAP) at Boston Children’s Hospital.