Young People Are Smoking More Pot Than Ever — and Why That’s a Bad Thing
Teens today are more accepting of marijuana as the law becomes more permissive, and professionals are struggling to communicate the risks and negative side effects of the drug.
DENVER — When Amendment 64 legalized the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone over the age of 21 in Colorado, Dr. Christopher Thurstone’s work became even more complex.
A child psychiatrist and medical director of one of Colorado’s largest youth substance-abuse treatment clinics at Denver Health, he has seen firsthand the detrimental effect of marijuana on young people.
And in the past two post-legalization years, he has noticed some concerning spikes: in number of patients, in levels of marijuana in their systems and in marijuana addiction among his young patients.
“It has made things much more difficult,” Thurstone told CNA. “Treatment is much more difficult than it used to be, just because the attitudes are more relaxed about marijuana use, and it’s so much more prevalent and easy to get.”
Currently, recreational marijuana is only available for purchase in three other states (Washington, Alaska and Oregon) and in Washington, D.C. But with the 2016 elections on the horizon, both medical and recreational marijuana bills will be showing up on ballots in states across the country, most of whom are looking to places like Colorado to determine best practices.
While the legalization of marijuana brings with it some economic benefits, many professionals who work with young people are concerned about the increasing acceptance of marijuana and the minimization of the risks and negative side effects of the drug.
As the social acceptance of marijuana increases, the laws change to reflect those attitudes, and vice versa. The legalization of marijuana is both a reflection of (and a catalyst for) more accepting attitudes toward marijuana.
As the perceived harmfulness of marijuana falls among teens, use goes up or, at the very least, remains stable. A recent survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that, for the first time ever, daily marijuana use has surpassed daily cigarette use among high-school seniors.
In an interview with The Atlantic, the NIDA director, Nora Volkow, said that on the one hand, the findings prove the success of anti-tobacco campaigns that target adolescents.
On the other hand, the growing acceptance of pot among adolescents is concerning, especially given its impact on the developing brain, she said.
Thurstone has also found that teens today are more accepting of pot — a shift that began with the legalization of medical marijuana and was further solidified by the green light on recreational marijuana.
“Pre-legalization, about 54% of 12- to 17-year-olds in Colorado reported great harm with regular marijuana use, and, now, post-legalization, that has dropped to about 34%,” he said.
“We’re clearly seeing a significant decrease in the perceived harmfulness of marijuana, especially among young people,” Thurstone continued.
And the data seems to match what he has seen among the teens in his clinic: “We’re seeing teenagers who are telling me, ‘Why would I stop using marijuana? I don’t believe it’s addictive; I don’t believe it has any bad effects; in fact, it’s my medicine for my anger, depression, anxiety or ADHD.’”
This year, Denver Public Schools (DPS) created a position for substance prevention. Michel Holien, the new supervisor, said that while DPS hasn’t necessarily seen a sharp increase in marijuana use, the district has noticed the shifting perceptions towards more accepting attitudes and is working to combat them as early as the middle-school level.
In Boulder, Colo., marijuana has long been entrenched in the culture, even before its legalization.
Father Peter Mussett, who serves as pastor at the Catholic church on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that even before legalization, 40% of incoming freshman were reporting use of marijuana on at least a monthly basis.
And while legalization has opened up more opportunities for conversations about marijuana, Father Mussett said it has also sparked more curiosity about the drug in more people than when it was still illegal.
“The curiosity is something that I find is one of the most poisonous parts of the legalization of marijuana, because I think, ultimately, it’s a toxic experience,” he said.
“[Legalization] just encourages the culture to say getting high is a great thing, and getting high is not a great thing. Getting high is destructive, and you can come in with all the best intentions, and on the other side of it, it always ruins people’s lives, continuously,” the priest added. “It makes them dependent in worldly ways, and it does not actually encourage a good spiritual life surrendered to God.”
Health Risks of Marijuana
The biggest health concern for young people using marijuana is its harmful effect on the brain, which continues its development well into a person’s 20s, Thurstone said.
The main active ingredient in marijuana, THC, binds to receptors in the brain and can cause a significant decrease in IQ over time. A 2012 study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that adolescent exposure to marijuana can lead to an 8-point drop in IQ, on par with the drop seen in children exposed to lead.
Another concerning impact is the relationship between adolescent marijuana use and schizophrenia. A study repeated by multiple research groups has found that adolescent marijuana use can quadruple a teen’s risk of developing schizophrenia, Thurstone said.
Marijuana can also be addictive, with one in six adolescent users developing a dependence over time, despite the perceptions to the contrary.
“In the scientific and medical community, there’s not debate about that anymore,” he said. “Marijuana is not just psychologically addictive, but physically addictive.”
A secondary health risk of marijuana use in adolescents is car accidents. The leading cause of death of 15- to 20-year-olds is automobile accidents, and the number of traffic fatalities in which adolescents tested positive for marijuana spiked in Colorado after the surge of medical marijuana in the state after 2009.
Part of the problem, Thurstone said, is that people don’t understand how marijuana influences driving differently than alcohol. Marijuana is fat soluble, and its effects on the body last much longer than water-soluble alcohol.
“That’s a myth — that it’s safe to drive under the influence of marijuana. We have to get good information out there around that,” he said.
Adolescent marijuana use is also associated with a lack of success in school, a major determining factor in quality of life over time.
“Everybody pretty much agrees it’s not a healthy thing in adolescents,” he said.
Motivating Young People
The best way to talk to students about marijuana is to get personal, DPS supervisor Michel Holien said.
In her work with five Denver area middle schools, she said she has found the messaging that most resonates with students is how marijuana use could affect their various goals.
“It’s really understanding for each individual youth ... what is really important to them,” she said.
“Is it getting into college? Is it staying on the team? Is it making sure their academics are up to par? [It is important] just understanding that marijuana, or really any substance use, can get in the way of those goals, especially when you think about the ways that it does impact the brain.”
When Father Mussett talks to his students about marijuana, he says he always approaches it from the traditional moral lens — which looks at the intention, object of choice and circumstances of use. As for motivating students to not use marijuana, he has found that the most helpful conversation is to focus on an individual’s intentionality behind the use.
“People don’t want to feel pain; people want to have a contemplative act; they want to be in touch; they want to be ‘one with the universe’; they want a ‘transcendent’ experience; they want to have communion with others, which are all good things,” he said.
“So when I’m talking to people, I’m always walking them through: ‘Okay, how does marijuana accomplish that? Is that something that’s a sustainable, valuable reality? Or is it an artificial simulation of that?’”
He said he then tries to help students find ways to accomplish those things without the use of marijuana or drugs, especially if it’s a true spiritual life they’re looking for.
“Marijuana is, unfortunately, a synthetic spiritual life. It doesn’t actually help people get in touch with God and to contemplate the world and be in touch with the ‘real,’” he said.
“And so, the only counteraction to it I really see is to live an authentic spiritual life and to seek whole ways, rather than synthetic ways, to experience communion, to understand your pain, to contemplate the real,” Father Mussett added. “I really think a life in Christ is the best solution for those people who are looking for these things.”
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