teens and pot

The Mason family is like so many others that I have seen in counseling. They happen to have two boys–Sam who is fourteen, and Max who is seventeen-but I’ve heard the same story from families with girls. Both parents are particularly concerned about Sam whose grades have been spiraling downward at the same time as his attitude has gotten more irritable and negative. When I ask about both kids’ use of drugs and alcohol, the parents share that they know that Max occasionally drinks at weekend parties and that they found a pipe in Sam’s backpack. They took the pipe, questioned Sam and were relieved to hear that he was just smoking pot–not hard drugs–and only now and then.

I wish that I could say that I was relieved but instead I was alarmed that Sam, and perhaps Max too, was already a regular user of marijuana. In the past few weeks, new studies are adding to what we already know are the serious potential consequences of early marijuana use. What information should all parents have about the serious risks of all drug use in the early teen years? And what can parents do in the face of a national trend towards increased use of pot among teens?

The Facts About Drug Use in America Today

♦ For years, national surveys have shown that marijuana is universally available now to young people who find it easier to buy than alcohol. The most common place to buy pot is at school, especially junior high and high schools, both public and private.

The most recent national survey (the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) found that 8.9 percent of Americans aged 12 or older were current illicit drug users, meaning they had used an illicit drug during the month prior to the survey interview. The Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, sponsored by MetLife Foundation, found that 9 percent of teens (nearly 1.5 million) smoked marijuana heavily (at least 20 times) in the past month. Overall, heavy marijuana use is up 80 percent among U.S. teens since 2008.

♦ Pot is the most popular illegal drug worldwide. Twenty-three percent of high school students in the United States recently surveyed said they had recently smoked marijuana. Almost every teen that I talk to tells me they know how and where to get pot if they want it.

♦ A majority of kids report that their first drug was marijuana (61.8 percent) or illegally obtained prescription drugs (26.2 percent) such as Vicodin, Xanax, or Ritalin, usually taken from their parents or siblings.While most people who smoke marijuana do not go on to use other drugs, long-term studies of high school students show that few teens use other illegal drugs without trying marijuana first.

The Potential Dangers of Early Marijuana Use and Abuse

A longitudinal study of over one thousand people (Madeline Meier et al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) found that the participants who became  dependent on marijuana before age 18 had lasting mental deficits. Specifically, these kids lost an average of about 8 IQ points. This may not sound like much but can be as significant as scoring in the 50th percentile (an average IQ) or the 29th percentile (well below average).The pattern also held up when the researchers excluded participants with persistent dependence on tobacco, alcohol, and “hard” drugs, and also those with diagnoses of schizophrenia.

♦ The same finding was not true of participants whose marijuana use began in adulthood which confirms others studies that show that marijuana and other drugs are particularly damaging to the developing brain. Marijuana affects certain parts of the brain more than others, specifically the hippocampus (important for memory and learning), the cerebellum (important for movement and coordination), and the cerebral cortex (important for judgment and decision-making).

♦ The use of marijuana can spell disaster on the road. Research shows that drivers on marijuana have slower reaction times, impaired judgment, and problems responding to signals and sounds. Depending on the study, approximately 4 to 14 percent of drivers who sustained injury or death in traffic accidents tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in pot.

♦ Marijuana also may affect your kids’ future mental health. Studies show that early marijuana use increases the risk of developing psychosis especially when there is a genetic vulnerability. If anyone in your extended family has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, mental illness, or drug or alcohol addiction, your child is at even more risk. Give them the facts early about the connection between mental illness and early drug use.

♦ Smoking pot as a teenager can double a man’s risk of getting testicular cancer, the most common cancer in men aged 15 to 45. This 2012 research conducted at USC will be published in the journal Cancer.

♦ In general, people who use marijuana over the long term report less life satisfaction, poorer education, and job achievement, and more interpersonal problems compared to people who do not use marijuana. The earlier your child experiments, the worse the outcome so prevention is crucial.

What Can Parents Do to Prevent Teen Drug Use?

♦ In the same national survey by SAMSA, researchers found that kids aged 12 to 17 who believed their parents would strongly disapprove of their using substances were less likely to use that substance than were youths who believed their parents would somewhat disapprove or neither approve nor disapprove. Make sure you let your kids know that you do not want them to use any drugs until they are adults.
Teenagers’ use of illicit drugs, cigarettes and alcohol were lower among youths aged 12 to 17 who reported that their parents always or sometimes engaged in monitoring behaviors than among youths whose parents seldom or never engaged in such behaviors. If you suspect that your kids are using drugs, use this as an opportunity to educate them about the risks. At the same time, impose consequences such as driving privileges, grounding, or temporary loss of cell phones if your rules are broken.
Parents need to be informed, be vigilant and be pro-active. Drug testing kits are readily available in your local drugstore. For most teens, knowing that their parents will randomly drug-test them and then enforce consequences is a very effective strategy. Even if you find that your teen is not using, you will be sending a message that you are against drug use, that you are watching carefully, and that you really care about their health and their future.
Joint photo available from Shutterstock