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New U.S. Surgeon General Alert: The Effects of Marijuana Use on Teens

marijuana treatment for teens in connecticut

On August 29, 2019, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory about the potential dangers of marijuana use during adolescence. He began by stating that the recent increases in access to marijuana, combined with the drug’s increasing potency and the growing number of misperceptions surrounding marijuana’s safety, are all endangering our nation’s “most precious resource” – our youth.

Marijuana is currently the most widely used illicit drug in the United States. This is true across demographics, including teenagers and young adults. Among younger populations, marijuana use is only second to alcohol. Over nine million youth between ages 12 and 25 have used marijuana in the past month. As their use of marijuana increases, high school students are simultaneously seeing less harm in smoking marijuana regularly.

You may be thinking, “Well, marijuana is legal in many states now” and therefore, “it’s not as dangerous as it once was.” Even your teen may be telling you that marijuana is “natural” and “everyone is doing it.” So, why is there cause for concern?

According to statistics cited in the recent report, marijuana is much stronger than it used to be. Specifically, THC concentration – the part of the drug responsible for the high, or intoxication – has increased three-fold within a decade’s time. Higher concentrations of THC can increase the risk of dependence and addiction, as well as other negative side effects like anxiety, agitation, paranoia, and psychosis. Depending on how the marijuana is consumed (for example, eaten versus smoked), this higher potency can also increase the risk for accidental overdose.

Greater potency isn’t the only problem, though, writes the Surgeon General. In 2017, 29% more young adults between ages 18 and 25 starting using marijuana. And in 2018, there was a jump in the percent of high school seniors using marijuana regularly, as well (22%). The problem is, these are the years that are essential for brain development. When drugs like marijuana are introduced before age 25 (when the brain is fully mature) it can pose many vulnerabilities and deficits. For example, marijuana use in adolescence can lead to a drop in IQ and worse cognitive performance, particularly on tests related to memory and decision-making. Other effects of marijuana on teens (even after abstinence) include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Deficits in attention and memory
  • Impaired learning ability
  • Less satisfaction in life
  • Increased rates of school absences and drop-outs
  • Increased risk of other substance abuse
  • Increased risk of substance addiction
  • Increased rates of suicide attempts
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders like schizophrenia

Let’s take a closer look at those last four points a bit more. All of these relate to the connection between early marijuana use and mental health. As Turnbridge discussed in a previous article, and as the Surgeon General calls out in his warning, marijuana use during the teen years – before the brain fully develops – increases the risk of, and causes early onset of, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. This risk increases with more frequent use, with higher potency marijuana, and the younger the age.

In addition to psychiatric disorders, marijuana use among teens also can lead to addiction or substance use disorders, despite popular belief. It can also be the gateway towards more dangerous substance use. The Surgeon General reported that in 2017, teenagers reporting frequent marijuana use showed a 130% greater likelihood of abusing opioids (like OxyContin and heroin).

The recent Surgeon General statement is not just an advisory – it’s a call to action: for parents, for teachers, for clinicians, and for youth. Until more is known about the long-term impact of marijuana, the safest choice is to stay abstinent in the younger years. For parents, the Surgeon General calls you to:

  • Review the facts and understand the risks of marijuana use during adolescence
  • Do not hesitate to start a conversation with your kids
  • Keep your adolescent from using marijuana and other drugs

To learn more about how you can help, or to get your teenager the help he/she needs, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge – an adolescent and young adult drug treatment center in Connecticut. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.