Adolescents are “biologically wired” to seek new experiences and take risks, as well as to carve out their own identity. Trying marijuana and other drugs may serve to satisfy these normal developmental drives…but in an unhealthy way that can have very serious long-term consequences.1
Why Is Pot Particularly Bad for Teens?
While the dangers associated with using marijuana do not fade with age, adolescents are more at risk because the brain and body are still developing through young adulthood.
Using marijuana during the turbulent teen years has a negative impact on learning, critical thinking, decision making, relationship skills and overall maturity. Additionally, impaired perception, judgment and inhibition make teenagers more likely to have casual sex and be involved in auto accidents while under marijuana’s influence – particularly when combined with alcohol.1
“We are increasingly concerned that regular or daily use of marijuana is robbing many young people of their potential to achieve and excel in school or other aspects of life,” says Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.Case in point, research now suggests that heavy use of marijuana (drug dependence) in the teen years can lead to a loss of up to 8 points in IQ score, which may persist well into adulthood.2
All of these potentially lifelong consequences make addressing adolescent marijuana use an urgent matter, especially now with more and more states legalizing this substance for various purposes.
What Happens in the Brain When Using Weed?
The teenage years are a critical window of vulnerability to substance use disorders. During this period, the brain is still developing and malleable (a property known as neuroplasticity). Some brain areas mature faster than others.
The parts of the brain that process feelings of reward and pain – crucial drivers of drug use – are the first to mature during childhood. What remains incompletely developed during the teen years are the prefrontal cortex (and its connection to other brain regions). This part of the brain is responsible for assessing situations, making sound decisions, and controlling emotions and impulses. Typically, this circuitry is not mature until young adulthood (approximately mid-20s).1
Can a Teen Actually Become Addicted?
Contrary to popular belief (modern myth), marijuana is addictive. With one-third of the U.S. population using marijuana at some point during life, estimates from intensive research suggest that about nine percent of users become addicted. This number increases among those who start young (to about 17 percent – or one in six users) and among daily users (to an alarming 25-50 percent).1
The majority of adults who have a substance use disorder started taking marijuana (or other addictive drugs) before age 18 and developed their disorder by age 20.1
What Factors Play a Part in Whether Teens Try Drugs?
Many factors influence whether an adolescent tries drugs, including the availability of drugs within the neighborhood, community and school, and whether friends are using them. The family environment is also important. Violence, physical or emotional abuse, mental illness or drug use in the household significantly increases the likelihood that a teen will use drugs. Finally,inherited genetic vulnerability, personality traits (like poor impulse control or a high need for excitement), mental health conditions (such as depression, anxiety or ADHD) and faulty adopted beliefs (for instance,that drugs are “cool” or drugs are harmless) can also contribute to a teen’s vulnerability to drug use.
In addition, a dysfunctional or minimal relationship with parents can cause confusion and maladaptive behaviors to surface when a child naturally begins to move out from under parental authority.1
Are There Signs that Indicate Marijuana Use?
While under the influence of marijuana, most people become dizzy, clumsy and exceptionally lazy.
Uncontrollable laughter or giddiness, red or droopy eyes, slow reactions, and trouble remembering things that just happened are all signs of someone who is“high.” As the effects begin to fade, hunger cravings typically kick in prior to becoming very sleepy.
The biggest giveaway is usually a distinctive odor on clothing, in vehicles or bedrooms. Excessive use of incense or air fresheners can be an attempt to mask the smell, and eye drops are commonly used in an effort to clear bloodshot eyes. Clothing, jewelry, posters, and music displaying or promoting drug use are also good indicators of the lifestyle choices a teen may be interested in. Of course, finding drug paraphernalia (such as pipes, bongs and rolling papers) among a teen’s possessions is immediate cause for concern.3
What Happens If Teens Try to Stop Using Pot?
Long-term marijuana users who try to quit typically report multiple withdrawal symptoms. This can include irritability, sleeplessness, decreased appetite and anxiety – as well as the drug craving. Altogether, this makes it difficult to stay off the substance once the habit (or dependence) is formed.1
“Each new generation of young people deserves the chance to achieve its full potential, unencumbered by the obstacles placed in the way by drug use,” adds Gil Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy.2
1“Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/introduction, (January 2014).
2 “Regular Marijuana Use by Teens Continues to Be a Concern”, News Releases, National Institutes of Health, https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/regular-marijuana-use-teens-continues-be-concern, (December 19, 2012).
3 “Signs of Marijuana Use and Addiction”, Easy-to-Read Drug Facts, National Institute on Drug Abuse, https://easyread.drugabuse.gov/content/signs-marijuana-use-and-addiction.