All across the country, marijuana advocates are suggesting that marijuana use is safe. Unfortunately, that’s not true, especially for children. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 6.5 percent of high school seniors admit to daily use. The long-term consequences of marijuana use are troubling and have the medical community on alert.
When someone smokes marijuana, the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), fits into the body’s so-called cannabinoid receptors, affecting mood, appetite, and memory. This triggers a domino reaction that culminates in a drug-induced “high.” For a brief time, the body’s mental abilities, especially memory and attention, are severely impacted. In addition, marijuana users have trouble with motor coordination and problems with judgment. For teens who choose to drive while using marijuana, the results can be deadly. According to a 2009 study, a few puffs of marijuana appear to produce a reaction as impaired as a blood alcohol level of .08.
Marijuana and Brain Development
When we think about brain development, we think that throughout our childhood the brain is growing. But according to scientists, the opposite is actually happening. As young children, our brains are actually larger and have many more connections. As we develop, we lose many of these connections, pruning the ones that we don’t need and making the ones that we do use, more useful and efficient. This is exactly the time when the brain is refining its skill in making judgments, thinking critically and developing a good memory. It’s also one of the reasons early marijuana use is so dangerous.
Use in Children and Adolescents
One of the most concerning aspects of marijuana use is its long-term impact on children and adolescents. The pediatric brain is highly malleable and continues to change up until early adulthood. Researchers are especially troubled that this population will face long-term negative consequences for marijuana use. Clinical psychologist Madeline Meier of Duke University and her colleagues studied over 1,000 marijuana users. They found that the earlier in life one began regular marijuana use, the more likely that they would have a lower IQ. The average decline in IQ was a full eight points and is a very significant finding. Those with average IQ dropped to ‘low average,’ a functional deficit that could significantly affect academic achievement.
It’s important to note that some charged that the study is limited, suggesting that the low IQ was due to socioeconomic factors. But Meiers research appears to refute this claim since the greatest IQ drop is correlated with age: the younger you are, the more you are at risk.
Of course, Meier isn’t the only one raising alarms. A 2011 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry showed that early cannabis users had poorer cognitive performance, suggesting that there were impairments to their executive functioning. Those who started at before the age of 15, they report, may have even worse long-term effects on neurocognitive functioning.
There are other troubling studies as well. A 1999 study by a group of researchers in Berlin, showed that marijuana use is associated with poor attention that does not remit in adulthood. That means that children who begin a regular marijuana habit may have symptoms of ADHD that will remain with them, throughout the course of their lives. A 2007 study found that not only was attention compromised in marijuana users, but they had problems sequencing information and overall slower psychomotor reactions. This doesn’t just mean that they performed more slowly, but that they had trouble processing the information internally.
Does early marijuana use contribute to psychiatric dysfunction? Some studies have shown that children and adolescents who use marijuana have reduced ‘gray matter.’ This could signal psychiatric problems and, indeed, there is a correlation between early marijuana use and psychosis. Of course, this remains a much-debated topic and researchers are hard at work to see whether the correlation is causational, that is, does marijuana cause psychosis. One study that supports this finding was conducted by Cécile Henquet, Ph.D., Researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology at Maastricht University, who found an association between the two. But at this point, the science is not yet clear.
Dangers of Marijuana
While we might not be entirely sure about all of the dangers of marijuana use, we know a few things for sure. First, the potency of marijuana is rising, contributing to a more powerful and potentially more dangerous drug. Second, we know that teens who choose to smoke are using more of the drug that had been used previously. Instead of smoking a small ‘joint’ or two once a week, substance abuse professionals report that teens are smoking large ‘blunts.’ Not only are they exposed to more powerful marijuana, but these blunts also contain more of the drug itself. Worse, they report daily use. In the popular culture, the rapper Snoop Lion (formerly Snoop Dog) reports that he smokes dozens of blunts daily.
If you are the parent of a teen, should you be alarmed? The answer is yes. Don’t let your teen think that smoking marijuana is safe or that there are no long-term effects. Scientists are extremely concerned and are working hard to demonstrate the seriousness of the problem. Marijuana is a toxin and it should be treated as such.