At What Age Do Children Generally Start Smoking Pot?

Teen Girl With Joint
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On average, kids who smoke pot start at age 16. The 2014 National Institute of Drug Abuse study, Monitoring the Future, estimated that 15.6 percent of eighth-graders had smoked marijuana or hashish at least once in their lifetimes, while 11.7 percent had smoked in the past year and 6.5 percent had smoked in the past month.

One Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey of people who were admitted for drug and alcohol treatment found that 14 percent began using drugs before age 13, in their preteen years. By the time they reach the tenth grade, the number of lifetime smokers jumps to 33.7 percent while prior-year smokers rise to 27.3 percent and past-month smokers include 16.6 percent.

The Influence of Others

The marked increase between eighth and tenth grades is significant because the main reason that teens begin to smoke marijuana arises from the influence of other people around them. Teens who have siblings or friends who do drugs are much more likely to try them themselves than adolescents who do not have drug-using friends. The transition between middle school and high school leads to new disruptions for kids: new schools, new friends, new pressures and different expectations.

The influence that others have on teen substance abuse is not limited to their peers in school. Teens whose parents drink, smoke cigarettes or smoke marijuana are also more likely to try those behaviors.

Availability of Pot Is a Key Factor

Children who live in neighborhoods where drugs are sold openly or who go to schools where their peers sell drugs are significantly more likely to begin smoking weed at an earlier age. The same study found that if teens merely perceive that their peers approve of drug use they will be more likely to use drugs themselves at an early age because that perception tends to "normalize" illicit drug use.

A double-whammy of cultural permissiveness and easy access to drugs contribute to earlier initiation ages and a larger proportion of kids using drugs.

Reasons Kids Use Drugs

In his book How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t, Dr. Neil I. Bernstein identifies reasons, beyond mere availability, why kids try drugs and alcohol:

  • Popular media
  • Escape and self-medication
  • Boredom
  • Rebellion
  • Instant gratification
  • Lack of confidence
  • Misinformation

Early-Onset Drug Use Has Consequences

Experts—and even some marijuana legalization proponents—agree that the later teens begin using marijuana, the better because their brains are still developing until around age 25. The earlier kids begin to smoke pot, the more likely they are to experience problems.

A Duke University study found that children who smoke marijuana at least weekly before age 18 displayed lasting harm to their intelligence, attention, and memory compared with those who began using marijuana after age 18.

The Duke study also found that quitting marijuana use later did not reverse the cognitive damage caused by regular marijuana use before age 18.

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  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Monitoring the Future Survey, Overview of Findings 2014. National Institute on Drug Abuse website.

  2. Zaharakis N, Mason MJ, Mennis J, et al. School, Friends, and Substance Use: Gender Differences on the Influence of Attitudes Toward School and Close Friend Networks on Cannabis Involvement. Prev Sci. 2018;19(2):138-146. doi:10.1007/s11121-017-0816-y

  3. Zimmerman, G.M., Farrell, C. Parents, Peers, Perceived Risk of Harm, and the Neighborhood: Contextualizing Key Influences on Adolescent Substance Use. J Youth Adolescence 46, 228–247 (2017). doi:10.1007/s10964-016-0475-5

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