Talking to your teen about marijuana

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marijuanadispensariesdenverIf your child goes to school anywhere in the Denver Metro area, you don’t have to drive far to see a marijuana dispensary or licensed marijuana store.  For that matter, it’s fairly easy to spot liquor stores in that same drive.  As parents, having a discussion about drugs and alcohol use with our teens is not generally a ‘favorite’ on our to do list.

Writing in Psychology Today, Social Psychologist and author Dr. Susan Newman says,

For years, the lesson parents tried to instill in their children about marijuana and other drugs was to “Just say no.” Drugs were once universally bad. In recent times, the public conversation surrounding marijuana use has changed to debates over legalization and its medical benefits. The new discourse can be misleading and dangerous for impressionable teens.

One study from the Partnership for Drug Free Kids reports that in the past the biggest deterrent for teens was a fear of getting in trouble with the law or with their parents. Now that legal punishment is being minimized or disappearing, it’s more important than ever for parents to step up and have that conversation with their teens and preteens. To young people, it may look like society is condoning marijuana use.

(Photo: MGN Online)

(Photo: MGN Online)

Here in Colorado,  “it’s been just over a year since Colorado became the first jurisdiction in the world to see the regulated retail sales of marijuana for adults’ use,” according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

Marijuana for adult use.  But with all this discussion and debate,  do teens hear that message and think it’s okay for them, too?

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 6.07.01 PMThe Colorado Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee just released a  set of findings of the scientific literature that’s available on the health effects of marijuana, and the section examining adolescents and young adults, really piqued my interest. (You can read the full report here.)

“As a public health agency, we’re concerned with protecting our vulnerable populations, and that includes kids,” says Dr. Mike Van Dyke, Chairman of the Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee.

“We studied a lot of findings, and we came away with a clear message to underscore that marijuana shouldn’t be used by people who aren’t adults. It can affect how your brain develops,” Dr. Van Dyke tells me.

A report by  backs that up with researchers from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta who say, “the human brain doesn’t stop developing at adolescence, but continues well into our 20s.”

MGNOnline graphic

MGNOnline graphic


“So,” adds Dr. Van Dyke, “marijuana, or any illegal substance, can rewire the way one thinks in an adolescent brain because your brain isn’t fully developed.”

If that’s not enough to make us stop and consider talking to our teens, here are a few key findings in the report that pushed me over the edge.

  • Regular marijuana use by adolescents and young adult is associated with impaired learning, memory and math and reading achievement, even 28 days after last use. These impairments increase with more frequent marijuana use.

Dr. Van Dyke says there’s no doubt, “we see marijuana causes impairment of cognitive and academic abilities.  Someone using marijuana might score lower on IQ tests and be less likely to graduate from high school. We also say that even after 28 days of their last use, it impairs their ability to learn..

  • Regular marijuana use by adolescents and young adults is strongly associated with developing psychotic symptoms and disorders such as schizophrenia in adulthood, and this risk is higher among those who start using marijuana at a younger age. Additionally, this risk is higher with more frequent marijuana use.

“There is evidence,” says Dr. Van Dyke, “that marijuana might rewire your brain so that you’re at risk for disorders.  It is hard to separate out, though, whether the proportion of the population that has mild symptoms may use marijuana, or alcohol or tobacco, to self medicate.  But there is evidence it could contribute causally.”

  • Starting marijuana use during adolescence or young adulthood is associated with future marijuana addiction.
  • Marijuana use by adolescents and young adults – even occasional use – is associated with future high-risk use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs such as cocaine, Ecstasy, opioids and methamphetamine.

“This,” Dr. Van Dyke asserts, “is a complicated issue.  You have a population of kids, and of that population those who use marijuana are more likely to take risks.  Once you look at those kids, you see their personality may lead them to do other risky things.  In other words, if you take one risk, you’re more likely to take another.”

For parents who use marijuana and feel reluctant about telling their kids not to do something they’re also doing, Dr. Van Dyke says one thing hasn’t changed, “it’s illegal, until you’re 21. It’s also illegal to drink alcohol until you’re 21.”

Using the message that marijuana and alcohol affects a teen differently than it affects an adult is scientifically supported.  And it’s this conversation that’s so important to have.

Dr. Van Dyke says one of the misperceptions of the public with marijuana has been the ‘smoke versus vaporize’ debate. “It’s particularly flawed for kids because the THC (the primary ingredient in marijuana) is a problem no matter how you get it.”



Some users are now doing what’s called ‘dabbing,’ taking their high to the next level, as outlined in this article by Sam Kamin and Joel Warner,

when a piece of this ‘shatter,’ as it’s called, is placed on the nail of a specially designed pipe that’s been superheated by a blowtorch, it vaporizes and delivers a direct hit of 70 to 90 percent THC, three times the potency of the strongest marijuana strains. If smoking regular pot is like drinking a beer, “dabbing,” as this process is known, is a shot of hard liquor.

“For a medical user,” says Dr. Van Dyke, “this may be an important use, but for the recreational user, especially kids, this is a huge dose of THC in a very short period of time.”

So how do we start having these conversations with our kids? Should schools be doing this in a way that informs but doesn’t encourage?

Dr. Van Dyke emphasizes, ” it has to be skillfully done.  Kids have to be educated on the issues.  The types of marijuana available and their potency has gone up significantly. And they really don’t know enough.”

There are online resources, like Speak Now that offer helpful guidelines on how to talk to your kids of all ages about drugs and alcohol.

New data is being collected, even now, as this committee continues to explore the health impact of marijuana.  Dr. Van Dyke says this is sort of a reference guide, “we wanted to take an unbiased look at all the marijuana literature, and there are big gaps.  But the main message for adolescents and young adults is clear, the use of any substance that affects your brain has long term effects.  Kids should think twice about it.”

Or in other words, you’ve got one brain and it has to last your whole life.



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