by Valerie Herber, APNP, PMHNP-BC, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Southwest Behavioral Services
“Marijuana is harmless!”, “I won’t get addicted!”, “Everyone is doing it!” or even, “I could be doing worse!” If you’re a parent of a teenager who is using marijuana or you accidentally fell upon your child’s “stash” while cleaning or looking for something else, you’ve heard all these common responses. Roughly only 30% of high school seniors perceive marijuana use to be harmful; and even lower yet, only 28.5% of Americans see marijuana use as a risky behavior. Unfortunately, it is possible that both of these percentages are likely to continue to rise as more states continue to legalize marijuana. About one in 11 marijuana users older than age 15 will become addicted. It is a real addiction. If your child is smoking marijuana, you’re not in this battle alone. An average of one in five young adults under 30 years old today is a pot user/abuser. Marijuana as prevalent as it is in all ages does not mean that it is “SAFE,” especially for our young people and the future leaders of our Nation.
As marijuana use continues to grow, it is important that teens and parents understand some crucial facts about the brain and its development through the critical teenage years. Only “16 days” after conception, the foundation of a human baby’s brain and spinal cord are formed. The brain, be it as complex as it is, continues to develop as a person ages. Into adolescence, the brain is still young, it is still malleable, and it is without a doubt filled with eagerness and impulsiveness. Adolescence may, in fact, be the most complex age of development, as our brains are undergoing critical, dynamic changes all throughout these fragile years. The brain does not stop growing until 25 years old, and a good amount of major development happens after age 16.
The main chemical in marijuana is THC (deta-9-tetrahydrocannibinol). This chemical when inhaled via smoking, first passes through the lungs, second into a person’s bloodstream which then carries it to vital organs in the body, including the brain. The chemical THC causes disturbances in the nerve cells in a person’s brain thus affecting their mental capacities.
Using marijuana daily, even short-term can cause several negative consequences such as poor memory, inability to make good choices, decreases in a person’s ability to learn or comprehend, and it is sure to decrease a person’s intellectual IQ. Regular use of marijuana not only affects a person’s intellect but also their emotional state. It is possible marijuana can cause or worsen one’s depression. Even worse, in some people, it can cause a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and/or anxiety. Long-term use of marijuana can cause a number of lifetime changes that have a snowball effect on a person’s existence. A person who is using marijuana routinely is more likely to have poor school performance, and even a higher incidence of school drop-out, which decreases their ability to obtain gainful work. Ultimately this increases unemployment rates, which can also cause a decrease in overall satisfaction in a person’s life due to financial hardships, among other things.
As noted, repeated long-term use of marijuana early in life is likely to impair a teenager’s brain development and functioning. As vitally important, is the teenager’s achievement in academics, which is the blueprint to our future workforce! The evidence is proven by a study of 13 to 38-year-olds which found individuals who began marijuana use in their teenage years had an eight-point drop in IQ, even if they stopped smoking in adulthood. Furthermore, evidence was obtained proving that adults who smoked marijuana as teenagers also showed worse scores in tests of memory and decision-making in comparison to non-smokers. A recent study yields similar results, finding that adolescents/teenagers who smoke pot as early as 14 do worse by 20 on some cognitive tests. A serious concern is that those individuals who begin using marijuana early in life are five times more likely to be high school drop-outs, again being detrimental to our need for highly educated workforce in future years to come. If you’re a parent, a teacher, a healthcare worker, or an elder, it is yours, ours, and my duty to prevent this growing marijuana addiction epidemic overcoming our early generation and our future ambassadors of our Nation.