In California, marijuana is all but legal. Medical marijuana dispensaries are prevalent throughout the state. Our public discourse extols the benefits and relative harmlessness of the drug. Every California ballot includes a proposition to “Legalize It.” But although marijuana may have medicinal merits, we must be wary of downplaying its numerous adverse effects. As “smoking weed” has become increasingly normalized, our society has promulgated various myths about the drug: that it is not addictive; that it does not negatively affect the user’s brain chemistry; that it cannot be unhealthy because it comes from the ground. Yet, as realistic as some of these statements can sound, none are true. Marijuana use can be extremely harmful—especially to younger populations and as the drug becomes even more widespread, teenagers will gain greater access to it. It is up to as, as parents, adults and voters, to educate ourselves about marijuana so that we can make well-informed decisions and take control of the conversation about the drug.
In the 17 years that Insight Treatment Programs has treated adolescents and their families, we have seen the deleterious effects of marijuana on teenagers time and time again. Studies have shown—and we have seen first hand—that despite claims to the contrary, marijuana is addictive, especially for those who start to use the drug in their formative years. In fact, according to the California Society of Addiction Medicine (CSAM), 9% of the people who start smoking marijuana after age 18 become addicted to it. In contrast, those who use marijuana before 18 have higher rates of addiction—up to 17% within 2 years—and disruption of the user’s life. In fact, according to recent studies, heavy users who suddenly discontinue their use of the drug experience an array of withdrawal symptoms, including decreased appetite or weight loss, irritability, nervousness/anxiety, restlessness and sleep difficulties, including strange dreams and EEG changes. Whether the teens we treat experience withdrawals or depression after discontinuing their usage of the drug, the Insight treatment team has seen first hand that marijuana can be both physically and emotionally addictive.
“Many of the kids that come to us are using marijuana as a way to self medicate,” says Anthony Lopez, Insight’s founding director. “They try to numb their emotional pain with marijuana, so they become dependent on the drug—but their underlying issues don’t go away.”
Though most of marijuana’s effects upon the brain are short term, more and more evidence has arisen that the drug also has long-term effects on the brain as well. Studies have shown that marijuana use can cause psychosis, contribute to the development of disorders like schizophrenia and irreversibly impair certain brain function affecting memory, attention, learning, and information processing. In addition, there is a strong correlation between marijuana use and poor scholastic performance in teenagers. Marijuana can increase the difficulties of those who struggle in school—even pushing them to failure. Additionally, marijuana can be harmful to physical—as well as mental—health. The drug contains many of the same chemicals and tar as cigarettes; regular usage can inflame the bronchioles and harm the cells lining the respiratory tract, conditions often associated with cancer.
Yet, the legalization of marijuana is not a foregone conclusion. As of May 6th, 2013, however, local governments in California were granted the right to ban medical marijuana dispensaries at their own discretion. And so, the societal prevalence of a drug that seemed all but ubiquitous may start to wane. But with or without legalization, as parents and role models, we must ensure that we stay educated about marijuana. It is up to us to ensure that our teenagers know about its dangers. Though we may not be able to control marijuana’s accessibility in the state of California, we can change the discourse surrounding it.