Why Marijuana Use in Teens Is Harmful

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The stigma of marijuana use has declined since the early 2000s, with some states legalizing it for medical and even recreational uses.

But research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that childhood marijuana use can affect learning ability, attention, memory, coordination, balance, judgment, and decision-making. While it may not be as problematic for adult use as once believed, there are still plenty of good reasons to discourage pot smoking in teenagers (other than the fact that in most states, it's still illegal).

Why Do Kids Start Smoking Pot? 

It would be nice if there was one clear reason that children and young teenagers begin using marijuana, but there are actually many reasons teens choose to begin smoking weed. But teens report that they began using marijuana for a wide variety of reasons. If you want to keep your children from smoking weed at an early age, you will have to be diligent in several areas of influence in their lives.

If they have family members who smoke or express approval of marijuana, research suggests that children are much more likely to begin using marijuana than those with no family involvement with the drug.

If they live in a neighborhood where they see drug activity going on, teens are less likely to express disapproval of drug use and become more likely to try drugs themselves. So be clear with your teen about marijuana use, and what problems it can cause.

Peer pressure to smoke pot remains a strong influence as well. If they have friends who are using marijuana, they are more likely to try it themselves. There's a tendency to adopt the attitude that "everyone is doing it" and it's part of the normal teenage experience. But research shows that the majority of teens make it all the way through high school without ever using marijuana.

Drug and alcohol use is often promoted in the magazines that teens read, the music they download, and the songs they listen to on the radio. Those influences can be significant for young children.

Self-Medicating and Escape

Many teens turn to marijuana in an effort to self-medicate, to make themselves feel better. They use marijuana to try to cope with depression, anxiety, and anger.

Teens will also begin using weed as an escape. Boredom is one of the main reasons some teens report that they use marijuana.

Children who have been physically or sexually abused are at greater risk than other teens for using marijuana and other drugs. They turn to drugs to escape the fear and pain of abuse.

Misinformation About the Risks of Weed

Some kids begin using marijuana because they have not to be informed of the harm it can do to them while their brains and minds are still not fully developed. Or more often, they make a decision to begin using based on misinformation.

The marijuana legalization movement has played a role in sending a mixed message to young people. Teens today might believe "if it's medicine, it must be safe" or "if it's legal, it must be OK."

Nowhere that marijuana has been made legal for medical or recreational use has it been made legal for anyone under that age of 21. Not even the most adamant legalization advocates propose making it legal for children to use.

If you are a parent who wants to protect your children from the dangers associated with early marijuana use, educate them with the facts so that they can make an informed decision about the risks.

Short-Term Risks

Marijuana use in adolescence can increase the risk of the following:

  • Difficulty learning and retaining information
  • Injury
  • Car accidents
  • Risky sexual behavior (leading to sexually transmitted disease)
  • Paranoia (when taken in high doses)
  • Psychosis (when taken in high doses)

Long-Term Risks

Chronic, long-term marijuana use in teens has been linked to the following:

  • Addiction
  • Altered brain development
  • Poor education outcome (increase likelihood of dropping out of school)
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Diminished life satisfaction
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic psychosis disorders (schizophrenia)

Talking to Kids About Marijuana

It is important to talk to your teen about marijuana use, not only if you feel they may be smoking pot, but as measure to hopefully prevent future use. If you’ve found evidence of your teen using, share with your teen what you have found and express why you believe they are using drugs. Don’t be surprised if your teen gets defensive or denies it.

Here are some more tips for talking to your teen about marijuana:

Pick the Right Time

If you think your teen is high, it’s best to wait until they are sober to have a conversation so they communicate properly. Instead of arranging a sit-down meeting, which might be met with resistance, try to make the talk more spontaneous and casual during a time when you’re both physically and mentally present.

Be Positive and Hold Judgment

If you judge or condemn your child, they will likely deny use and be less receptive to your message. Instead, think about when you were a teen and how you’d want your parents to talk to you with respect, understanding, and curiosity.

Stay Clear-Headed and Calm

While you want to get your point across, you don’t want to approach the conversation with anger or panic, which may prevent your teen from really listening to your concerns.

If your child is struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. "How Does Marijuana Affect the Brain?" Drug Facts. June 2016.

  2. Simons-Morton, B. et al. "Recent Findings on Peer Group Influences on Adolescent Substance Use." The Journal of Primary Prevention March 2012.

  3. Duncan, DT et al. "Perceived neighborhood illicit drug selling, peer illicit drug disapproval and illicit drug use among U.S. high school seniors." Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy September 2014.

  4. Volkow ND, Baler RD, Compton WM, Weiss SR. Adverse health effects of marijuana use. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(23):2219-27. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1402309

  5. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. How to Talk About Marijuana.

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