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By Ashleigh Berke, Hanley Foundation Prevention Specialist

While alcohol remains the most commonly used substance among youth, marijuana is quickly gaining popularity, as it becomes more socially acceptable and readily available across the nation.

Young people use marijuana for many of the same reasons they may begin using alcohol, whether that be peer pressure or a belief that it is harmless and everyone is doing it. Until recently, there was limited research examining the long-term effects of marijuana use, particularly among youth users. For this reason, and the successful branding of marijuana as “natural,” many young people perceive marijuana as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs.

A research report posted in 2020 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse explored marijuana’s long-term effects on the brain and found clinically significant evidence that regular use during adolescence has a permanent impact on a developing brain.

One of the most significant effects shown from the study was notable problems in memory and learning due to structural changes in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for storing long-term memories.

Often up for debate is the connection between marijuana use and IQ.

The report notes that various studies on this topic have not achieved the same conclusion and that many other factors can influence these results. However, a large study found that regular use in adolescence was linked to up to eight IQ points lost in adulthood. Surprisingly, this study found that even if use stopped after adolescence, the IQ points were not recovered. Alternatively, when marijuana use began in adulthood, IQ was not affected. These results stress the impact of use on a developing brain.

There is an alarming perception among young people in which it is commonly believed that drugged driving, or driving under the influence of marijuana, is inherently less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.

However, it has been extensively shown that marijuana impairs drivers in the same way – affecting judgement, reaction time and motor coordination. Further, the risk of crashing is three to seven times greater for those under the influence of marijuana, compared to drivers without any substance in their system.

Finally, one of the greatest misconceptions among young people is that marijuana is not addictive.

In contrast, recent data suggests nearly a third of marijuana users qualify for some degree of a substance use disorder because of their use. In fact, adolescents who use marijuana before age 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who began using as adults. Often, a marijuana use disorder presents with symptoms of dependence – or adaptation to the drug and withdrawal during periods of non-use. If attempts to stop use cause fluctuations in mood, difficulty with sleep and appetite and physical discomfort, an individual has likely adapted to such a large amount of the drug that they are overly sensitive to their own patterns of use.

A significant contributing factor to the statistics seen with marijuana use disorder today is the rising potency in today’s marijuana.

Steadily increasing over the last several decades, the average THC content is more than triple what it was thirty years ago (15 percent versus 4 percent). Further, new products like edibles and oils have average potencies closer to 80 percent. The long-term effects of these higher potencies are still unclear, but recent increases in hospital visits and poisoning cases may point to a larger problem.

Still, many young people contend that marijuana is a safe and effective alternative to more traditional medicines.

The medicinal properties have been the subject of debate for many years, particularly as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved THC-based medications for treating nausea, primarily in cancer and critical AIDS patients. CBD-based medications to treat epilepsy have also been approved. At this time, no other THC or CBD-based medications have been approved for any other conditions, and the evidence is unclear on whether either effectively treats pain or other conditions. The bottom line to stress to youth is that the approved medications are not the same products that produce the “high” achieved from recreational marijuana products, including edibles and oils. Further, the active chemicals in those substances that are unregulated by the FDA may have adverse health effects we are unaware of if used to self-medicate.

For more information, access the articles below and download our resource on tips for bridging the conversation of marijuana with your child(ren).

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Marijuana Research Report (2020)

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