The ‘60’s and 70’s were the hay day for drug and alcohol usage by teenagers. Today, cigarette and alcohol use by teenagers are at their lowest levels since 1975. Marijuana is the most common illicit drug used in the United States by teens as well as adults. A survey of drug, alcohol, and cigarette use among teens found that past-month marijuana use for 10th and 12th graders has stayed relatively steady since 1996. Marijuana use does remain on the rise among US college students, along with a decrease in perceived risk of harm regarding A new wrench has been thrown into the mix, with marijuana legalization in several states, raising the question: will legalizing cannabis increase it’s usage by teenagers?
There is good reason to be concerned about early drug usage. The unfinished teenage brain has an increased reward drive and an enhanced dopamine release, causing teens to gravitate towards thrills and risky behavior. It also leaves adolescents with an increased susceptibility to addictions, and the earlier they start, the more likely they are to become addicted. Early and frequent marijuana use has been found to have a significant negative effect on the brains of teenagers and young adults, including cognitive decline, poor attention and memory, and decreased IQ by up to 8 points. These facts should have a sobering effect on the laissez faire attitude held by many teenagers that “pot is less harmful than drinking.”
Although more teens did use marijuana in 21 of the states where medical marijuana laws were approved, the rate of use did not increase after the laws were passed. The fact that adolescent marijuana use is higher in certain states may reflect the overall acceptance of the drug in their environment, according to researchers. Most experts agree that more time and research needs to occur to know for sure.
Until that time, I’d focus on what we do know, i.e. that the immature teenage brain is highly susceptible to impulsive and risky behavior, that adolescents lack good knowledge about the effects of marijuana, and that it pays to do everything we can to limit early exposure to drugs. Many teens I meet use pot as self-medication: as a way to forget about their problems for a while, or to numb out from intense feelings. They need tools to express their emotions in healthy ways and skills to handle the normal ups and downs of life. Perhaps most importantly, they need adults to model a healthy lifestyle, including dealing with frustration, anger, sadness, and disappointments.