Shifting attitudes toward marijuana have fueled self-medication among teens, exposing them to long-term mental health risks.
Vermont’s legalization of recreational marijuana means that nine U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, have made the substance widely accessible to their residents. While the health benefits of cannabis are medically acknowledged — easing chronic pain in lieu of easily addictive opioids, for example — this newfound accessibility poses important new questions, especially when it comes to our children.
This is a discussion that parents and educators need to be having. Since the push for decriminalization and legalization has made marijuana readily available for adults, it will only become easier for curious teenagers to get ahold of it. What’s more, a recent trend — self-medication — is increasing the chance that uninformed adolescents and teens may abuse the substance.
In light of marijuana’s uniquely harmful effects on teens, this new reality poses serious risks.
A 2013 study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reveals that 60 percent of 12th graders don’t think that marijuana poses any serious risks to their health. What’s more, statistics show that this belief coincides with greater cannabis use among teens.
It’s easy to see why teens might be thinking this way. Let’s be honest: marijuana has long held the allure of forbidden fruit for young people, in the same way that cigarettes, alcohol, and other contraband items and substances always will. But public opinion has for many years remained staunchly opposed to cigarettes; if anything, they’ve gone out of vogue among younger, more health-conscious generations.
In recent years, marijuana has enjoyed just the opposite: a widespread reversal of negative public opinion. With 61 percent of Americans supporting the legalization of pot, it’s no wonder that teens are internalizing this shift. Indeed, the perception amongst teens that marijuana is free from adverse health effects is nearly twice as popular as it was 20 years ago — a surge that has coincided with a similar rise in public support for legalization.
But a distinction must be made: while marijuana can certainly have positive effects on adults who use it for medical reasons, it doesn’t work the same way for teens.
That’s not to argue that adults shouldn’t be able to enjoy their newfound freedom when it comes to purchasing and using marijuana. However, we do need to understand how marijuana has changed over the years, and how those changes uniquely impact teenagers. According to CNN, pot’s average level of THC — the psychoactive chemical which produces the “high” — has shot from 1-3 percent in the 1990s to nearly 13 percent today.
THC doesn’t just elicit feelings of relaxation. Studies show that continued exposure to the chemical before the age of 18 can have damaging effects on teens’ cognitive development. From shorter attention spans to decreased executive function, consistent and substantial marijuana use can lead to irreversible adverse health outcomes — even if teens stop using marijuana in adulthood.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the current climate of legalization has not done enough to prevent young people from seeing pot as “acceptable, safe, and therapeutic.” Indeed, as marijuana has become more readily available, some teens are turning to the substance for non-recreational uses. Research has explored “relief-oriented” applications for pot — that is, self-medication — with concerning conclusions.
Teens who self-medicate do so to mitigate the effects of depression, anxiety, and stress. Paradoxically, cannabis can, in fact, exacerbate these psychiatric issues in users under the age of 18. The phenomenon is further complicated by the fact that young people who use marijuana for relief are often already struggling with mental disorders, trouble at home, and difficulties at school.
While marijuana may provide relief in the short term, consistent use — especially without the guidance of medical professionals — can lead to unhealthy habits. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 9 percent of marijuana users develop a psychological addiction. That number jumps to 17 percent for users who start young, and it increases again to 25 percent for those who use on a daily basis.
The intentions of young people who self-medicate may be innocent — they’re simply trying an increasingly accepted, potentially therapeutic substance in order to help themselves through daily life — but the line between use and abuse is blurry, and it’s one that teens are not equipped to navigate on their own.
No matter your politics, it’s unlikely that the tide of public opinion will experience another major reversal in the years to come. That means that, for the foreseeable future, marijuana will become both increasingly accessible and socially acceptable. It falls to parents and educators to ensure that teens understand the potential negative effects of marijuana usage, and do not attempt to use it for self-medication.
In Colorado, where marijuana purchase and use is legal for residents over the age of 21, schools are taking steps to educate students. School-sanctioned prevention programs can bring young people up to speed on the risks associated with marijuana usage and the problems it can create, and outline available mental health services for students who may be dealing with emotional, behavioral, or developmental issues.
For parents, talking to your children is a crucial first step. Rather than policing them, or threatening them with punishment, work to help them understand the natural consequences associated with substance abuse and marijuana addiction, from greater risk of panic attacks to subpar performance in school. At the same time, it’s important for adults to realize that young people who self-medicate are not receiving the attention they sorely need for issues that are affecting their wellbeing. Parents should consider how best to get their children the care they require — free from potentially addictive substances.
As parents and educators, it’s up to us to get involved. Consider meeting with your children’s teachers (or your students’ parents) to come up with concrete plans that address teenagers’ needs in a healthy and sustainable way.