Marijuana Especially Dangerous for Teens, Young Adults

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Since New York’s legalization of recreational marijuana use, Mike Favata, deputy with Monroe County Sheriff’s office, has received numerous questions about its safety. However, legal does not equal safe or healthful.

“There is danger in driving under the influence of marijuana,” Favata said.

Just as with alcohol, it is illegal to drive while affected by marijuana.

Favata said that using marijuana often leads to using harder drugs. Many people he knows battling addiction say they started with marijuana.

Although the teen years are about pushing boundaries and experimentation, trying marijuana just one time is not a good idea. Marijuana purchased as street drugs may contain fentanyl, responsible for numerous overdoses, or other harmful substances. Besides, it is not legal for anyone younger than 21.

“You don’t know what you are taking into your body,” Favata said. “They need to treat this like any other product someone hands them. Would you be willing to ingest it if you don’t know where it came from?”

Although teens would likely turn down sushi handed to them by a sketchy-looking stranger on a street corner, they are willing to try marijuana from an unknown source because a friend hands it to them.

Some adults tell teens that it’s OK to experiment with marijuana vape pens since they used hookahs as teens.

“The THC in vape devices used for marijuana could be 70% to 80%, versus street marijuana, which could be 12%,” Favata said.

Most people know about marijuana’s hallucinogenic effects. They may not realize that marijuana use can cause long-term changes to the brain.

“It is not recommended, especially for the adolescent brain,” said Erin Parr, who holds a Master of Arts degree in counseling and psychology and is credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor and clinical supervisor at Horizon Health Services, Inc., which provides services throughout Western New York.

While low-dose marijuana can be prescribed for therapeutic use, taking it at higher levels and/or without the guidance of a healthcare professional invites disastrous results. Parr said that the “final push” for brain development occurs between the ages of 12 and 24. Flooding the brain with marijuana during that time may permanently disrupt brain maturation.

“We see a variety of harms with regular use of high potency cannabis use,” Parr said. “There are significant risks for the developing brain. It’s very important for parents, coaches and teachers to know about these harms.”

The effects are user-specific, but can be worse for users younger than 15, who have an 11-times greater risk of developing schizophrenia, a chronic lifelong brain disease. Young users can also experience an increased risk of psychotic illness in their 20s. Youth of any age with a first-degree relative with bipolar disorder, anxiety or depression have a much greater risk for developing these with marijuana use. Other raised risks include lifelong lower emotional function, lower cognitive processing, reduced language development, attention deficits and IQ drop of up to eight points.

“You don’t get a do-over with brain development,” Parr said. “It needs to last your whole life. We need young people to not disrupt this critical period of brain development. There is no safe amount of cannabis to consume during pregnant.”

While most of the youth who try marijuana will not develop a substance use disorder or psychosis, the devastating effects for those who do could make it not worth trying.

Parr encourages parents to talk with their children about marijuana risks and to avoid glorifying their own youthful drug experimentation. Instead, answer any questions honestly and warn teens that the marijuana of a generation ago was far different.

“Anytime a parent is directive or instructive, it’s natural for teens to dig in their heels,” Parr said. “We want parents to provide good information. We want them to know the potential risks and benefits. I encourage parents to ask them what’s interesting about it, have they experimented with it, do they know it has these effects? Usually, a young person can say they know a friend who started using it and seem to have some strange experiences. Most have no idea that cannabis is a modifiable risk factor for psychosis.”

Setting boundaries with clear consequences can help teens feel secure that you care about their health and safety. Both parents should agree on their stance on drug use and share their agreement with their children.

Involve your children in activities they enjoy that build a healthy self-image. Help them seek treatment for any mental health issues so they are less likely to try self-medicating with marijuana. Know your children’s friends and where they are after school and in the evening.

“Maintaining a relationship with your children is key,” Parr said. “It’s hard to make a positive difference if your young person does not want to engage with you. If cannabis use is affecting school performance, financial stuff happening, and brain development, let professionals have that conversation with your adolescent. They can do the substance abuse counseling so the parent can be the parent.”