Teens and the Real Danger of Marijuana Edibles: What Parents Need to Know

The prefrontal cortex of my teenage son’s brain isn’t fully developed.

It’s a fact I have been forced to remind myself of several times a day, sometimes several times an hour, since that fateful call a few weeks back.

“Don’t freak out,” my ex-husband had warned when I picked up the phone, his voice grave and a bit shaky. After pausing for what felt like an eternity, he informed me that our 17-year-old son had ingested some type of drug and was being transported by ambulance to the emergency room.

Some type of … drug?

I freaked out.

Marijuana edibles are a growing risk to teens.

Racing to the hospital, I struggled to wrap my head around what I’d just been told. My son was a straight-A student, a member of the National Honor Society, a varsity athlete. He was in the throes of submitting applications to highly ranked universities and striving to establish his individuality in cleverly constructed college essays. Over the years, we’d had countless talks about drug and alcohol use, the risks of addiction, the potentially life-changing (or even life-ending) consequences. There was just no way he was using drugs!

But to my shock, he turned out to be among a growing number of teenagers across the U.S. experimenting with marijuana edibles. Call me naïve, but I had never before even heard the term “edibles,” widely used to describe a new generation of pot-laced baked goods, candies and beverages that are both made at home and sold by dispensaries in colorful packages and flavors that appeal to kids. I suppose I never had any reason to.

But now, my identity as a mother feels permanently scarred by an irrevocable chasm; the parent I was before receiving that harrowing call, and the one I became from that moment forward. The mom I had been when I recognized the word “edible” as simply an adjective, and the one I was forced to become the instant it took shape as a vile noun.

The prefrontal cortex of my teenage son’s brain isn’t fully developed.

Alarmingly, not only are edibles on the rise among teens, according to a recent survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but they often contain high doses of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Even more unsettling, an edible-induced high comes on more slowly than the smoked version of the drug, leading many teens to consume far greater than the recommended dosage when they fail to experience an immediate effect. This can quickly result in a toxic overdose, as was the case with my son.

When he ingested half of a pre-packaged marijuana cookie at a high school football game, it represented one-and-a-half-times the suggested dose listed on the dispensary wrapper (which allocated the cookie as three portions). About an hour and a half later, my son began to experience uncontrollable vomiting, which prompted a witness to call campus security, who then summoned police and ultimately, paramedics. (For those of you concerned about my child’s anonymity in this article, let me assure you that any sliver of possible confidentiality vanishes when you are taken by ambulance before hundreds of student, parent and faculty onlookers.)

Thankfully, my son ended up being okay. But tragically, a 19-year-old college student who consumed an edible during a 2014 visit to Denver wasn’t so fortunate. The teenager, who traveled with friends possibly for marijuana tourism, ate more than six times the recommended amount of a marijuana cookie then jumped off a fourth-floor balcony to his death, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Although the student initially ate only a single piece, when he didn’t feel any effects 30 to 60 minutes later, he ingested the remainder of the edible. The autopsy report listed marijuana intoxication as a chief contributing factor to his death.

During our own visit to the ER, doctors shared with us that the marijuana industry as a whole is subjected to minimal regulation, with no guarantee of accuracy in the THC levels published on dispensary product packaging, and even less assurance of ingredients contained in made-at-home edibles. Even more, today’s marijuana typically contains THC levels that are 15 to 25 percent higher than what was found in previous years.  Popularity is also growing for reprocessed substances known as concentrates, which can reach THC levels as high as 99 percent.

When it comes to teens’ use of edibles, the appeal is two-fold. First, they tend to produce a more dramatic and longer lasting high than smoked marijuana. Perhaps even more advantageous, edibles are void of the telltale smell emitted by pot, making it easier for young people to evade detection. Indeed, a reduction in the likelihood of getting caught was the prime motivation for edible use cited by 15- to 17-year-olds in a recent focus group conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

As my son lay connected to I.V. drips and heart monitors in the hospital that night, I examined the empty edible package he had relinquished to us, wondering how he had obtained it. I would quickly learn that edibles have become remarkably easy to acquire on high school campuses across the nation, sold by students who either make the products themselves or resell those obtained from dispensaries. While studies are mixed regarding whether the legalization of marijuana is leading to increased drug use among teens, there’s no denying that the proliferation of dispensaries across the country has made pot products extremely accessible.

Not only is medical marijuana permitted in more than half of U.S. states, recreational legalization is also on the rise. On election night, voters approved recreational initiatives in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia, where pot was already legalized. Tellingly, 40 percent of 12th graders who had used marijuana in the past year in medical marijuana states consumed it in an edible form, according to the 2014 Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF), which measures drug use and attitudes among teens.

Regardless of your personal opinion about legalization, it is difficult to ignore the serious consequences that have resulted from the movement. A study of use in Colorado published in 2015 found increases in marijuana-related traffic deaths, school suspensions, lab explosions, pet poisonings, and marijuana-related ER visits — which skyrocketed 57 percent between 2011 and 2013. Even if your state hasn’t given a formal nod to medical or recreational use, that doesn’t mean your teen is necessarily safe. The same Colorado study also tracked pot-related ER trips specifically for out-of-state visitors, charting a whopping 109 percent increase from 2012 to 2014.

Equally worrisome are changing attitudes regarding the perception of marijuana. For instance, in the MTF survey, only 36 percent of 12th graders acknowledged that regular pot smoking puts the user at great risk, compared to 52 percent just five years earlier.  Research has consistently shown that the less risky a teen believes a drug to be and the more that society shows approval of the substance, the greater the likelihood he will use it.  Even more frightening, the study revealed that one out of eight teenagers drove after smoking pot in the previous two-week period, and one in five rode with a driver who had been smoking — behaviors I was appalled to learn my own son had elected.

The prefrontal cortex of my teenage son’s brain isn’t fully developed.

Coming to terms with the fact that I somehow missed the signs of my child’s marijuana experimentation has been nothing short of devastating. “He’s a good kid,” the vice principal at his school emphasized when she called me the day after the incident, offering him an alternative-to-suspension program. My son was extremely fortunate that his grades and lack of disciplinary history made him eligible for this option, which prevented the indiscretion from being attached to his official transcripts. “Good kids sometimes make bad choices,” she had said, exuding such kindness that I began to weep in front of this complete stranger.

I recognize, too, that I am not alone in my parenting angst; it is estimated that every day, nearly 3,300 teenagers try marijuana for the first time, and approximately 13 percent of those will become dependent on it.

Experts continue to underscore the importance of communication with teens, suggesting that parents craft messages around the potential dangers and consequences of marijuana, such as providing examples of how taking edibles or smoking pot just once can have serious, permanent and even deadly repercussions. Furthermore, teens need to understand how marijuana — which has been proven to cause a drop in IQ of up to 8 points — can keep them from achieving their full potential, making it harder to perform well on a test, secure a job or pass a driver’s license exam, for instance. It can also dramatically impact a teen’s future if he or she is suspended or expelled from school

In our case, we also shared with our son that he could ruin his chance of being accepted to the universities he’s worked so hard to get into — and also let him know that we weren’t going to pay for him to go away to college if he wasn’t capable of making better choices.

Much to my relief, the seriousness of the experience appears to have resonated with my son, and I am beyond relieved to see him refocusing on more positive endeavors. But since trust is earned back slowly, in the near term he will also be subjected to less freedom, more conversation, and random drug tests.

For me, the guilt and the disappointment are also slow to wane. So the gentle reminder remains, sometimes several times a day.

The prefrontal cortex of my teenage son’s brain isn’t fully developed.


The Teenage Brain: What Parents Need to Know 

Binge Drinking and the Unique Danger to Teen Brains

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Grown and Flown

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.