Statements and opinions expressed in editorials and articles are not necessarily those of the El Paso County Bar Association.
Evidence That Smoking Marijuana Harms Youth
Don’t worry, I am not going to subject anyone to a repeat of the lectures we all heard in the 60s, 70s and 80s, those of us who were teeny-boppers then. The fact of the matter is, most of us (or them) did not become marijuana addicts. But the truth of the matter is, some of us (or them) did. And many more youth, today, are. In Colorado, about one in every 15 teens is using marijuana on a daily or near daily basis, the highest rate since 1981. In the marijuana used today, concentrations of the active ingredient, THC, are higher than they were decades ago (20% today versus 2 or 3% then). Another alarming phenomenon is that significant numbers of younger children are using as well. Anyone making decisions about the best interests of children needs to be mindful that whether or not marijuana is harmful to adults, we now have a growing body of evidence that it is harmful to children: it can be damaging to their developing brains.
Disproportionately, marijuana dependence develops in people who try the drug before the age of 18: according to one study, 17% versus 9% (of people who use the drug as adults); and according to another study, adolescents are 9 times more likely to develop symptoms of dependence than are adults.
Children, including teenagers, are more at risk of permanent harm from marijuana, of actual organic, irreparable brain damage, and of physiological and psychological dependence on the drug. This is because of the rapid growth and neurologic organization that is taking place before 18 years of age. Science now pinpoints some specific ways in which smoking marijuana can harm a developing brain. It can cause changes in the brain’s very structure. This can subsequently cause a decrease in cognitive functioning: memory, motivation, attention span and attentiveness are impaired significantly; verbal intelligence and fluency, word recall, and visual scanning decrease; and reaction time and decision making slow down. Reminder: these are the effects of marijuana intoxication in adults as well as adolescents. However, while an adult brain can return to normal over time, the altered state can become the new NORMAL for the adolescent brain. For increasing numbers of youth, lower cognitive functioning is the new normal. This alarming point warrants emphasis: when adult onset users stop using marijuana their cognitive and emotional functioning return to higher levels; when adolescent onset users stop using, their functioning does not return to previous levels.
Psychosis occurs at higher rates in young adults who were exposed to marijuana before the age of 18 at rates two to four times higher than in young adults who did not use marijuana as adolescents – even if they do as adults. In at least eight studies involving thousands and thousands of people over generations and in several populations and countries, this has been found to be true.
As any traffic cop knows, aggression and automobile accidents are linked. Marijuana withdrawal in many cases leads to aggression, which is another reason why the increasing rates of marijuana use and dependence is frightening. Rates of drugged driving (or at least the rates of THC being found in the blood of drivers) doubled in the first year after medical marijuana became legal in Colorado. One study found that among drivers under the age of 30 who were killed in traffic accidents, 30 percent were acutely intoxicated by marijuana. And it is 3.3 times more likely to be found in fatal accidents than not. The leading cause of death to adolescents is accidents, and marijuana use is associated with an increased risk of accidents. This correlation cannot be ignored.
What contributes to the use (or abuse) of any substance? The consensus points to three external circumstances: availability, social acceptance and perceived harmlessness. The current and likely future status or position of medical marijuana in Colorado today impacts these variables significantly. Teenagers who report that they know someone with a medical marijuana license are about twice as likely to use marijuana as those who do not. With marijuana more available and socially acceptable, and with the popular notion that it is harmless, adolescents are particularly vulnerable. Their brains are primed to seek pleasure, thrills and adventure – which accounts for why they are known risk takers. (Indeed, there is an evolutionary benefit to risk taking, one job of a developing child is to actively engage in the world.) At the same time, the parts of the brain that are in charge of impulse control and judgment, that weigh risks, evaluate consequences and put a stop to a pleasurable activity, are not fully developed or functional in adolescents. (This is why adults, with the benefit of mature brains, capable of applying brakes to impulses, and making reasonable judgment calls when necessary, must watch over children and guide them.) Even as we condone use of this drug for various reasons by responsible adults, we must determine how to protect adolescents.
Active use is one issue; passive exposure is another. Are there physiologic effects of being around marijuana grow operations? Yes, there are. They include some frightening phenomena that occur in the air around marijuana plants that are being grown commercially: high spore levels of penicillin (which is not good news for any of the increasing number of asthmatics); unsafe residues of pesticides and fungicides; and high levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide about. Doesn’t exposing children to environments such as these amounts to child abuse!
In determining issues such as parenting time and residences for children, we must be mindful of these risks and how science and statistics inform us. Again, I am happy to point you to the research on which I base these assertions.