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Partners in Prevention - Marijuana risks remain in spite of legalization


Last updated 3/13/2023 at 2:57pm

Marijuana is a product of the cannabis plant and its main active chemical is THC. It poses substantial health and safety risks to young people, yet it is the most widely used drug among this population.

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), teen and early adult years are when children are most vulnerable to marijuana’s harmful effects. It can affect brain development, academic achievement, relationships, and physical health. The risk for addiction increases as well.

Why do young people use marijuana?

Regardless of whether a young person uses marijuana “to feel good” or “to feel better,” environment often shapes their beliefs and attitudes. These, in turn, influence choices around marijuana use and its potential consequences.

A family history of substance use or addiction increases risk of use. Risk also increases with a parent, older sibling, a friend or peer who uses marijuana, along with easy access to the drug in the home, neighborhood or at school. Media & pop culture, and social media are strong influences in young people’s lives which tend to glorify marijuana use and downplay its harms. Of surveyed teens, a third reported that their main source of information about drugs is from social media, other teenagers or the internet — sources that are often unreliable.

Some young people use marijuana to try to relieve their feelings of depression or anxiety, sometimes the result of more responsibilities or school pressures. Marijuana use can worsen mental illness and lead to addiction in some individuals.

According to CASA, marijuana, receives a lot of attention due to nationwide legalization efforts. It’s often viewed as a harmless substance. Therefore, teens and young adults tend to discount its risk. About three-quarters of adolescents believe infrequent marijuana use does not harm the body. The majority believes it is safer than alcohol even though we know each substance has its own set of risks.

Why be concerned?

The strength or potency of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — has increased steadily since the 1960s. The National Institutes of Health indicate that the average THC concentration in leaf marijuana increased nearly fourfold, from 3.96% to 15.61%. There has also been an increase in ER visits involving marijuana, suggesting that the drug’s current strength is responsible for worse health consequences than decades past. Higher potency is also associated with more severe dependence and a greater likelihood among adolescents of developing psychosis and anxiety disorders.

Short-term effects

Marijuana use can affect people differently. The most common effects include:

• Inaccurate perception of time and sounds.

• Slower reaction time, affecting driving and increasing injury risk.

• Poor judgment, increasing the likelihood of risky sexual behaviors and unlawful acts.

• Panic attacks and paranoia.

Longer-term effects

Substances like marijuana directly interfere with brain development especially the parts of the brain responsible for decision making, reward seeking and impulse control. Use of marijuana can have serious effects mental and physical health, such as:

• Risk of chronic cough, bronchitis, and worsening symptoms of asthma.

• Impairment of learning, memory and attention, affecting school performance.

• Increased risk of schizophrenia or other psychoses, with the highest risk among the most frequent and long-term users.

Driving under the influence of marijuana

Much like alcohol, marijuana affects judgment and general motor skills, which is especially risky for new and inexperienced drivers. Driving while high is not safer than driving while drunk.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of drivers found to have marijuana in their system is higher than drivers who test positive for alcohol. Among teen drivers who said they have used marijuana in the past month, nearly half said they have driven after using marijuana.

Impact of legalization

Many young people believe that legalizing marijuana means that it’s safe to use, no matter the age. Research suggests that when teens and young adults believe there is little risk in using marijuana, rates of use increase.

National data indicate that in all states that have legalized recreational marijuana as of 2018, reported rates of first use among adolescents are 12-63% higher than the national average.

The marijuana industry is eager to promote use to young people as they can become long-term, heavy and loyal users of the drug. The industry has already begun to use successful strategies borrowed from tobacco and alcohol promotions. It’s not surprising that edibles resembling candy and other snacks are popular with young people.

Steps parents can take to prevent use

You have tremendous influence over whether your children use substances, including marijuana. Kids themselves have shared that their parents have the greatest influence over their attitudes and behaviors. Consider these points when talking to your child:

• Know the facts. You are an essential buffer between your child and the many influences that encourage them to use marijuana. Be aware of where, when, and why young people use marijuana. Be ready with honest answers, shared in an age-appropriate way, so that they see you as a trusted source of information.

• Start early. Pre-middle school and high school conversations can lessen your child’s intention to try or use in the future, as well as influence how they approach friendships with peers who do use substances. It’s important to keep talking as they get older as well.

• Have frequent and honest conversations. Look for opportunities to discuss marijuana with your child calmly and casually. Then be ready to listen, understand their perspective and avoid rote lecturing.

• Convey your expectations. Calmly explain why you don’t want your child to use marijuana but also be sure they understand that your main concern is their health and safety. Let them know that you will always be there to help them if they are in an unsafe situation, regardless of whether it involves marijuana use.

• Set a good example. If you use marijuana — whether in front of your child or not — you should anticipate that they might call you out on it (“But you smoke weed, too!”). Take the time to reflect on, and perhaps reevaluate, your own use — especially if your child is watching. Think about the effect your behavior has on them and the example you are setting.


Havre Public Schools and the HELP Committee and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line are committed to promoting safe and healthy lifestyles to become long-lived, responsible citizens. For more information on this or related topics, contact the HELP Committee at 406-265-6206.


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