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Marijuana’s Effect on the Brain: Is Your Child at Risk?

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Regular marijuana use can lead to poor memory.  It can affect a teen’s ability to problem solve, their learning capacity, and inevitably lower their IQ.  Smoking pot not only can stir depression in consistent users, but also other mental illnesses like schizophrenia and anxiety disorders.  Because of the changes the drug provokes within the brain, marijuana is especially addictive.

Despite marijuana’s effect on the brain and body, the perceived harm of the drug is in fact dwindling.  Today, only 28.5 percent of people in the United States believe regular marijuana use is very risky.  Only about 30 percent of high school seniors view regular marijuana smoking as harmful to its users.

As a parent, you have likely heard from your teen that “Marijuana is harmless!”, “I won’t get addicted!”, “Everyone is doing it!” or even, “I could be doing worse!”  And with the legalization of marijuana sweeping the states, our children’s perception of marijuana will only continue to relax.  But should it?  Can marijuana actually instigate detrimental effects in the brain?  Should parents be concerned?

In short, the answer is yes.  If you know or even suspect that your child is using marijuana, you have every right to be concerned.  Marijuana’s effect on the brain is not one to take lightly—especially in the case of adolescents and young adults.  Time and time again, studies show the negative implications that marijuana can leave on the developing teenage brain.

This is because the young brain is consistently under construction.  It is not until age 25 that the brain fully develops, and the most major, dynamic changes occur after age 16.  The frontal cortex – the region of the brain that is critical to judgement, decision-making, and self-control – is the last part to fully mature.

It is no wonder, then, why the brain is so sensitive to damage from drug exposure during the younger years.  Marijuana has particularly harmful effects on the brain.  In the short-term, marijuana can impair functions such as attention, memory, learning, and decision-making in a user.  In the long-term, heavy marijuana use can lead to poor school performance, high dropout rates, greater risk of unemployment and overall lower life satisfaction.

The main chemical in marijuana is deta-9-tetrahydrocannibinol, otherwise known as THC.  When marijuana is smoked, the THC passes quickly through a user’s lungs, into the bloodstream, and is then carried to organs throughout the body – including the brain.  THC then disrupts the nerve cells within the brain, causing one’s mental aptitude to weaken with repeated exposure.

The endocannabinoid system, a system responsible for mediating the psychoactive effects of drugs like marijuana, is also underdeveloped in adolescents and young adults.  Located in the brain and throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems, it also plays an important role in a person’s cognition, neurodevelopment, stress response, and emotional control.

If a user smokes marijuana regularly, the cellular activity in the endocannabinoid system will be reduced.  For teens and young adults, this means that the underdeveloped system may make them even more sensitive to the neurological effects of marijuana use.

Adolescents and young adults who have regularly used marijuana for a stretch of time are especially susceptible to the long-term effects of the drug.  Not only is their early marijuana use is likely to impair brain development and functioning, it may also lead to lower academic achievement.  One study of 13 to 38-year-olds found that those who began marijuana use in their teenage years had an eight point drop in IQ, even if they stopped smoking in adulthood.  Adults who smoked marijuana as teenagers also did worse in tests of memory and decision-making compared to non-smokers.  Another recent study yields similar results, finding that adolescents who smoke pot as early as 14 do worse by 20 on some cognitive tests.  They are also over five times more likely to be high school dropouts.

Repeated marijuana use has also been linked to increased risk of psychosis and mental illness, particularly among those who have pre-existing vulnerabilities.  A new 2017 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine revealed that marijuana use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia, other psychoses, and social anxiety disorders.  According to the report, chronic marijuana users are also more likely to have suicidal thoughts and increased symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Most notably, marijuana use in adolescents and young adults can cause long-term substance abuse problems down the road.  Despite popular belief, there is such thing as marijuana addiction.  In fact, it is anticipated that approximately 1 in 11 marijuana users aged 15 or older will become addicted to marijuana.  Already, about 4.2 million people nationwide meet the diagnostic criteria for abuse or dependence on marijuana.  Marijuana is the second leading substance for which people receive drug treatment, following directly behind alcohol.

If your child is smoking marijuana, you are not alone.  About one in five young adults (younger than 30) today is a pot smoker.  Yet the drug’s popularity does not deem it safe – especially for early generations.  As parents, educators, and elders, we must prevent marijuana use in our youth.  We must provide accurate, relevant information about the dangers of marijuana and its effect on the brain, as well as offer comprehensive addiction treatment for those in need.  If you believe your son or daughter is addicted to marijuana, please do not hesitate to reach out.  You may call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn more about our treatment programs for young men and women.