What’s So Bad About Teen Marijuana Use? Some Surprising Answers

With all the recent headlines about the states of Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana and other states possibly contemplating such legislative action, some people may be tempted to believe that this somehow validates and justifies marijuana use for every person, teens included. But the facts say otherwise. Marijuana, contrary to what users and proponents say, is not “totally harmless.” It is a gateway drug and can lead to addiction. Let’s look at some of the facts and statistics to get a better understanding about what’s so bad about teen marijuana use. The data comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the 2013 National Drug IQ Challenge in observance of National Drug Facts Week, Shatter the Myths (January 28-February 3, 2013), and other documents and resources available on various NIDA websites.

Marijuana is Addictive

Think that smoking marijuana is just a pleasant way to bliss out and forget about your troubles? Believe that there are no consequences, minor or major, from indulging in marijuana use? Convinced that smoking marijuana can’t possibly be addictive, since it’s used for medical purposes? Or, do you sincerely think that there’s no way you can become addicted to marijuana, period? Think again. Statistically, an estimated 9 percent of people who smoke marijuana every day will become dependent on the drug. That’s not such a large number, you might argue. But wait, it gets worse. Around 1 in 11 people who use marijuana will become addicted to it. That number goes up to about 1 in 6 among those who start using marijuana in their teens. And among the daily users, it’s 25 to 50 percent. Of course, the chances of becoming addicted to marijuana, or any other drug of abuse, are different for every person. Do you really want to take that chance and become one of the growing numbers of those addicted to marijuana? The next time that you hear someone in your group of friends spout off about how marijuana can’t hurt you and you can’t become addicted to it, or your teen pulls out news clips and pro-marijuana stories to try to convince you, remember that statistic: 25 to 50 percent of daily users will become addicted to the drug.

How Marijuana Affects the Brain

Learning and memory, two critical areas of development in teens, are affected by using marijuana. How does it affect learning? It acts on the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for the formation of memories. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, alters how information gets processed in the hippocampus. Animal studies provide much of the evidence supporting the assertion that marijuana use negatively affects learning and memory. When rats in utero were exposed to THC, soon after their birth or during adolescence, they later began to show problems with specific learning and memory tasks. Cognitive impairment in adult rats is associated with structural and functional changes in the hippocampus from THC exposure during adolescence. It is known that as people age, they experience a loss of neurons in the hippocampus. This decreases their ability to learn new information. Chronic exposure to THC may step up the age-related loss of neurons in the hippocampus. Marijuana use also impairs learning, participating in sports, doing complicated tasks, and driving. How does this happen? THC disrupts coordination and balance by binding to receptors in the cerebellum and the basal ganglia, two other parts of the brain that regulate balance, posture, coordination, and reaction time. Think about not being able to learn what you need to in school, to be able to pass tests, to comprehend instructions, to remember what you just read, even to remember what you did yesterday or last week. How much less satisfying and productive would your life be without the ability to learn and form memories?

Consequences of Marijuana Abuse

How marijuana affects teens is not only different for each person, but is also wildly unpredictable. Using marijuana along with other drugs of abuse, such as alcohol, prescription medications used for non-medical purposes, cocaine and other drugs, compounds the problem and combines various symptoms and effects. Specific consequences of marijuana abuse can be best understood in terms of acute symptoms (present when the user is high), persistent (lasting longer than when intoxicated, but may not be permanent), and long-term (cumulative effects of chronic abuse).

  • Acute – impairs short-term memory; impairs attention, judgment, and other cognitive functions; impairs coordination and balance; increases heart rate; may result in psychotic episodes (including paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, and a loss of the sense of personal identity)
  • Persistent – impairs memory and learning skills; results in sleep impairment
  • Long-Term – can lead to addiction; increases risk of chronic cough and bronchitis; increases risk of schizophrenia among vulnerable individuals; may increase risk of anxiety, depression and amotivational syndrome

Other Facts About Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana has something in common with other drugs of abuse when it comes to how it affects the brain. Do you know what it is? Marijuana and other abuse drugs cause a flood of dopamine in the brain’s reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in parts of the brain that regulates emotion, movement, feelings of pleasure and cognition. When this reward circuit is activated, the brain takes note that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, so the individual can do the activity again and again without having to think about it. In a way, it’s like imprinting or rewiring the brain to react to the craving and urge to consume drugs. Heroin, marijuana and alcohol are chemicals that work on the brain and interfere with the way nerve cells would normally send, receive, and process information. These drugs mimic brain chemicals, but they don’t activate nerve cells the same way as a natural neurotransmitter does. As a result, the chemicals in these drugs lead to abnormal messages being transmitted throughout the brain’s network.

What About Spice or K2?

Some teens have taken up the habit of using spice or K2, so-called “fake marijuana.” This is a dangerous practice for several reasons. Spice and K2 are a mixture of chemicals and herbs. Abused mainly by smoking, when inhaled, Spice and K2 release powerful chemicals similar to the active ingredient in marijuana, but much stronger and untested in humans. Despite the common belief among teens that these synthetic products are harmless and much less dangerous than marijuana, they are not natural and they are anything but safe. Spice and K2 has put people in hospital emergency rooms with rapid heart rate, agitation, vomiting, confusion and hallucinations. Spice can also elevate blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart, which may result in a heart attack. Regular Spice users can experience withdrawal and other symptoms of addiction.

How Important are your Life Goals?

Maybe you don’t think too much right now about what’s going to be important later in your life. Maybe you live day to day, focused on having fun, getting high, taking a break from your responsibilities at home or at school. But the teen years are critically important in terms of development, in learning how to master skills, to prepare for adult life, to begin to assume greater responsibility and to build self-confidence. In high school, teens who smoke marijuana daily are likely functioning at a reduced intellectual level most or all of the time. Compared with teens who do not smoke marijuana, those who do regularly use the drug tend to get lower grades and are more likely to drop out of high school. As for the teens themselves, their own self-reported levels of satisfaction with life and achievements is poor. One study compared current and former heavy marijuana users with a control group who smoked marijuana once but less than 50 times in their lives, fewer heavy marijuana users finished college and more had incomes of less than $30,000 per year. The heavy users also said marijuana negatively affected their social lives, physical and mental health, cognitive abilities and career achievements. The teenage years should be a time of exciting new discoveries, of making new friends and exploring possibilities, not spent wasting time in a fog where you can’t think clearly and don’t want to do anything. Is lighting up that joint to fit in with pot-smoking friends or dosing food with heavy concentrations of THC in an attempt to boost the high really where you want to be? Why let your hopes and dreams for your future slip away because of marijuana? Is it worth it?

Getting Help

All is not lost. Even teens that are addicted to marijuana can be helped through treatment. The fact is that while marijuana dependence appears similar to other substance abuse disorders, the long-term outcomes may be less severe. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), adults who have sought treatment for marijuana abuse or dependency have smoked every day for more than 10 years – and have attempted to quit six times. Marijuana dependence is most prevalent among those suffering from other psychiatric disorders, particularly among adolescent and young adult populations. Marijuana abuse and dependence also typically occurs along with (known as co-occurring) the use of other drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol. Effective treatment of marijuana dependence and abuse includes standard treatments that involve the use of medications and behavioral therapies designed to help curb marijuana use among heavy users and those with more chronic disorders. Types of behavioral therapies that may be used include motivational enhancement therapy (MET), contingency management (CM), group or individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and family-based therapies. There are no current medications targeted specifically at treating marijuana abuse, but research is active in this area. Some recent study results may show promise for the development of a medication that can block the intoxicating effects of THC. Such a medication could help prevent relapse by reducing, or even eliminating, marijuana’s appeal. As with dependence and addiction to other types of drugs, overcoming marijuana addiction may require more than one period of time in a treatment program or rehab. The most important factor in getting past marijuana or other drug abuse is a commitment to healing. You have to want to be free of dependency on drugs. You also have to work hard at learning healthier behavior that can allow you to live a lifestyle that won’t leave you compromised and locked into habits that seriously jeopardize your health and your future. Bottom line, the first step in stopping dependence or abuse of marijuana is to ask for help. If you are a teen who wants to overcome marijuana dependence, go to your parents first. If you are the parent of a teen who is a chronic marijuana user, find help for your teen by calling a confidential treatment referral hotline at 1-800-662-HELP. Or visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website. Remember, if you are willing to commit to overcoming marijuana abuse or dependence, or if you are smart enough to recognize that marijuana is not something you want to get involved in to begin with, your life will be better and more productive if you take the first steps. Learn more about marijuana abuse and dependence, along with how harmful other types of drugs are, especially to teens, by visiting NIDA for Teens. There, you can get the straight facts about drugs, read questions from other teens, learn the connection between drug abuse and risky behaviors, watch videos about drug abuse, and get creative about activities to learn more about drug abuse and spread the word on how to live a healthy, drug-free lifestyle. There’s also a section that’s useful for parents of teens involved with drug abuse. Parents can learn about community treatment programs across the country, specific questions to ask when seeking drug abuse treatment and searching for a treatment program for their teen, and principles of effective drug abuse and addiction treatment.

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