Please don’t judge me for asking this question, but is it OK if my 17-year-old son uses a little marijuana now and then? We just found out that he has been using it (probably more than a little) to manage anxiety. He has several learning difficulties, including executive functioning delays and attention problems, and he’s applying to colleges and trying to keep up with remote schooling. He says marijuana is helping him.
My first reaction was a firm hell no, I will not allow him to smoke pot in my household. But he’s made a very strong, well-researched case for the benefits of marijuana, and now I’m thinking it might be OK. In fact, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t all be dabbling in it…
What do you think?
This is a good time for all of us parents to shore up our understanding of the pros and cons of cannabis, given this week’s wave of legalization votes. Four new states eased restrictions on marijuana. (In addition, Oregon passed two measures that legalize hallucinogenic mushrooms for medical purposes and decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs like heroin—but we’ll leave information about those drugs for another column.)
Your son is not alone. Just as adults are drinking more to cope with this stressful time, teenagers may be smoking more pot—or at least parents are seeing it more since they are in closer proximity these days. Even before the pandemic, adolescent marijuana use was at its highest rate in 30 years.
Here’s why that matters: Brain development is more significant during adolescence (between the ages of about 11 or 12 years old and 25 or 26) than during any other developmental stage except in the womb. And the brain’s natural endocannabinoid system—which is affected by marijuana use—plays a very important role in this critical period of brain growth.
The unique brain development that occurs during adolescence is temporarily halted by marijuana use. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high, binds with the brain’s cannabinoid (CB1) receptors. This blocks their normal function.
It also makes kids really high. Teenagers have more CB1 receptors than adults do for THC to bind to, and THC also stays in the CB1 receptor for longer than it would in an adult. According to neuroscientist Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain, “[THC] locks on longer than in the adult brain. For instance, if [a teen] were to get high over a weekend, the effects may be still there on Thursday and Friday later that week. An adult wouldn’t have that same long-term effect.”
This is the effect I want your son to understand: While THC is in the CB1 receptor, it blocks the process of learning and memory and slows, or stops, adolescent brain development.
Because of this, exposure to marijuana during adolescence “can dramatically alter brain maturation and cause long-lasting neurobiological changes that ultimately affect the function and behavior of the adult brain.” This is according to a 2014 review of research published in academic journals that examined the consequences of marijuana use during adolescence, particularly the effects on cognitive functioning, emotional behavior, and the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder in adulthood. The damage is irreversible.
I think this bears repeating because, in my experience, parents consistently resist the notion that “a little pot smoking is harmful” by insisting that what I’ve written here is controversial. You don’t have to trust me on this. According to Judith Grisel, an internationally recognized neuroscientist, an expert on addiction at Bucknell University, and author of Never Enough:
The world’s best science now indicates that the long-term consequences of adolescent drug use, acting upon a very plastic brain that is highly tuned to news and pleasure while at the same time a bit retarded in terms of self-control, may be grim. . . . Chronic THC users have an increased tendency to feel blue, show more difficulty with complex reasoning, and suffer from things like anxiety, depression, and social problems. . . . For adults, the neural changes caused by marijuana . . . would likely recover with abstinence. However, consequences are more likely to be permanent when exposure occurs during adolescence. In addition to dampening reward sensitivity, THC acts in pathways that ascribe value or import to our experiences, and if these are muted, especially for a lifetime, the impacts are likely to be broad and deep. The heart of the matter is that the brain adapts to any drug that alters its activity, and it appears to do this permanently when exposure occurs during development.
In other words, marijuana causes brain damage in adolescence. It won’t help your son manage his anxiety over the long run, and it may even increase the odds that he’ll suffer from anxiety more, as cannabis use is also associated with a dysregulated stress response.
Marijuana can also worsen your son’s difficulties with executive functioning, making it hard for him to do things like plan, initiate tasks, or maintain his focus on things that aren’t inherently interesting to him. Research has shown that THC can impair working memory, and that use during adolescence and young adulthood is associated with impaired brain functioning and corresponding declines in IQ.
Another concern: Cannabis use influences motivation, something that your son probably really needs right now. Researchers point to “reduced motivation and capacity for usual activities required for everyday life, a loss of energy and drive to work” in marijuana users. This side effect likely has to do with the ways that THC impairs the function of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward and pleasure systems.
I know most people, your son included, don’t perceive much risk in using marijuana now and again. But perception is not reality. Even if recreational marijuana were legal for teenagers and college students (it is not in any state for those under the age of 21), it is still risky. And it’s a different drug than it was a generation ago—in most cases, it’s three times stronger.
A better approach, Considering, would be to help your son manage his anxiety in healthier—and more effective—ways. Meditation, for example, has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve both executive function and attention deficits. I know: It isn’t easy! Hang in there.