“Everyone smokes weed in college, Mom. It’s no big deal.”
“Marijuana is a plant – it’s natural, and way less harmful than alcohol.”
“Kids that are high never go out and drive, or try to assault someone!”
If you are a parent of a child in high school or college, chances are good you’ve heard these statements made – whether your child speaks from personal experience, or is just sharing the prevailing attitude about cannabis today. For clarification, marijuana is the psychoactive drug that comes from the cannabis plant. Various parts of the plant are also used to make edible, oil and wax products.
No matter what our thoughts and experiences were surrounding pot when we were teens, it is not surprising that so many of our kids today feel differently – with 28 states permitting some form of medical marijuana use, and eight states allowing recreational use for adults age 21 and over. Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the U.S., with only about 10% of reported use for medical purposes.
As a parent, how can we discuss this issue intelligently with our children, when there seems to be conflicting facts and confusing “evidence” offered by both sides of the argument? As with so many substances we can put into our bodies, there are both benefits and risks to cannabis use, depending on the physical and mental state of the person ingesting it. People on each side of the issue do agree on this – much more research needs to be done, and therein lies a monumental problem. Marijuana is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, with no “accepted medical use” and a high risk of addiction. Federal law bans transport of marijuana across state lines and therefore medical experts face some difficulties conducting rigorous testing.
So what do doctors and public health experts agree on? The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine took a detailed look at more than 10,000 research articles published since 1999, regarding the health effects of cannabis, and recently (January 2017) issued a report with almost 100 conclusions.
While marijuana use has shown to be beneficial in treating chronic pain, nausea and multiple sclerosis symptoms, most adolescents are not using to treat those conditions.
Six Points About Marijuana for Guiding a Parent-Child Discussion
1. The more often and the earlier that someone uses any kind of cannabis product, there is an increased likelihood of developing “problem usage” – that which has some kind of negative effect on day-to-day living.
2. There is moderate evidence to suggest a link between use and the “development of substance dependence and/or a substance abuse disorder for substances including alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs.” So a “gateway drug” argument can be made for marijuana.
3. Cannabis use is likely to “increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, other psychoses, and social anxiety disorders, and to a lesser extent depression.” Heavy users are also more likely to report suicidal thoughts.
4. Cannabis use results in the immediate impairment of learning, memory and attention, however, there is only limited evidence that these impairments persist after usage stops. Also, there is limited evidence that usage results in impairments in subsequent academic achievement, education, social relationships and social roles, or increases in unemployment and low-income.
5. Cannabis use before driving does increase the chances of being involved in a motor vehicle accident, and in states where recreational use is legal, “there is increased risk of unintentional cannabis overdose injuries among children.” Marijuana edible products take longer to digest and therefore produce a high. This can lead to unintentional poisoning.
As for usage-related longer term health conditions, the report stated these findings: no increased risk for similar tobacco related cancers like lung, head and neck; some evidence that smoking marijuana may trigger a heart attack; a suggestion that “smoking cannabis on a regular basis is associated with more frequent chronic bronchitis episodes and worse respiratory symptoms, but no clear evidence that an association exists with “respiratory diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, or worsened lung function.”
The reality of this report’s conclusions is that much more research needs to be done, and many teens are sure to argue with vague terms like “limited” and “moderate” evidence. From a parental perspective, we want our children to err on the side of caution, and that attitude is often met with skepticism.
As a public health professional, the bottom line I use with my children is this: Any substance that affects the human brain needs to be used cautiously – particularly when it comes to a brain that is still developing, and lost mental abilities may or may not ever be entirely repairable. (The human brain is not fully developed until the mid 20’s.) If you are experiencing any challenging situation that requires you to adopt a coping mechanism, seek out ones that are known to be safe and effective – the repetitive use of drugs or alcohol usually just creates another situation that eventually becomes an additional problem.
Ultimately, all of our kids will be put in a situation where they are faced with making a decision whether or not to try cannabis in one of its many forms – or whether to continue the habit they have already established. My hope is that in either case, they have been presented with evidence-based facts, and with the knowledge that information surrounding marijuana use will continue to evolve and advance with further research. There is still much we do not know about how this drug affects the human body.