Marijuana usage and popularity continue to increase as it becomes more widely legal and socially acceptable. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 43.5 million individuals reported using marijuana in the past year—making it the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States. Many regard marijuana as safer than other illicit drugs and a beneficial medical alternative. While the notion holds some truth, marijuana is still a drug with unknown factors that requires more research to be fully understood.
As the laws regarding marijuana become more lenient for adult use, we must consider the influence it has on the youth population. It may not be legal for them to use marijuana in any capacity, but their perception of the drug and its moral implications will likely evolve to match social standards. And as perceived harm drops, usage goes up.
The adolescent brain is particularly at risk for substance abuse and addiction. People who try addictive substances before the age of 15 are seven times more likely to develop a substance problem than those who wait until after the age of 21. Furthermore, the risk of addiction and abuse decreases every year that use is delayed during adolescent brain development. In other words, the longer your child waits to try any drug, the less likely they are to develop an addiction.
Though you’re not as likely to become addicted to marijuana compared to other illicit drugs, the idea that marijuana is entirely non-addictive is a prevalent misconception. Whether someone becomes addicted or not depends on a variety of factors. Factors include family history, other drug use, peer relationships, success in school and other activities, and most relevantly—the age they start using.
Approximately 9% of marijuana users become addicted. That rate increases to about 17%, or 1 in 6 people, for those who start using marijuana as a teen. Moreover, 25–50% of those who use it every day end up developing an addiction. As shown in the graph above, teenagers ages 13-18 are at a significantly elevated risk for a cannabis use disorder (CUD) compared to older recent-onset users (aged 22–26).
The best thing you can do is have an open discussion with your child as talking to them about marijuana decreases the likelihood that they try it. Some may see drugs and alcohol as a rite of passage, and it can be challenging to get through to teenagers who often think they’re invincible. Children are also more receptive than adolescents, so it can be beneficial to begin building up their knowledge at an early age. If possible, start an ongoing conversation about drugs with your child as early as fourth or fifth grade. The sooner you open up a dialogue about drugs, the better.
Mr. Reimer specializes in working with families in crisis, including substance abuse, anxiety, depression and self-harm. He has been a Certified School Counselor in high-schools for 15 years.
The best time to talk with your child about drugs is now. If you have an older child and have never brought up the subject now is the time. If you have a younger child, it is never too early to talk about drugs; in fact this is when you may have the best discussions.
Ideally discussing drugs, especially cannabis, will not be a deviation from a normal family discussion, just a continuation. Setting a family norm that you talk about major events and topics is a daily practice that focuses on a sharing of ideas and views. Children will respond in the way that they feel comfortable, so start early when the discussions about drugs are not as immanent and there is less pressure on your child and they will respond more consistently.
Parents, first be self-aware of what your own beliefs and views on cannabis are and that your child will most likely not agree with you on all of your beliefs. Find reliable sources to inform you about what cannabis is and what it is being utilized for. Cannabis has changed. Know how.
Second, start early by having conversations about other difficult issues. Creating a family habit of having discussions about difficult and controversial topics, cannabis can then just be one of the conversations your family engages in.
Third, and this is the most important, stop talking and listen. Do not respond to correct your child, just listen. Let them talk about all that they know about the topic. They may believe something different than you but give them the chance to say why their experience is different than yours. You can start by saying “Tell me all you know about cannabis.” When they are done use “How” questions to clarify their belief. Instead of saying “You are wrong”, ask “How did you get to know that?” (You already know yours, and your child probably does as well).
The best way for a parent to influence a teenager is for the child to know that their parent will listen to them first. Teenagers are looking for a connection and want to figure themselves out but today there is so much static it is almost impossible. Ask questions and listen. Teenagers have a need to be in control, so let them take the lead on some conversations.
If you need to discipline, let your teenager know that there will be negative consequences but delay the sentencing. Take a day or so to process what happened and then start by asking your teenager what a fair consequence is. You might be surprised by their answer but understand that you, as the parent, have the final decision.
The most common pitfall is to think “That is not my kid.” Many times a family is stuck emotionally because they did not think that their child could make that choice. The lag time from hearing to understanding is sometimes too long for the child. Understand that every teenager has the potential to use drugs, it is a scary but true reality. One exercise you can use is to ask yourself “If my child were to use drugs, why would they?” Start with the future possible problem and work backward. When you come up with possible reasons for their future use and start to plan for those possibilities. Know that every person has the possibility of turning to drugs to self medicate. Teenagers are no exception. Believe that your child could use drugs but communicate so if they do, the conversation can happen naturally.
Marijuana is currently the second most used substance among youth, right after alcohol. While teenage usage of cigarettes and alcohol is in steady decline, marijuana use is at its highest level in 30 years and is more common than cigarettes. It’s also used more than three times as much as all other illicit drugs combined.
A federally funded yearly survey, “Monitoring the Future: National Survey on Drug Use,” polled high school students from grades 8, 10, and 12 on drug and alcohol use and related attitudes. Analyzing the collected data yields the following information:
A possible explanation for why daily marijuana usage has increased considerably is the upsurge in vaping among adolescents. More than 1 in 5 twelfth graders and nearly 1 in 5 tenth graders reported vaping marijuana in the past year. In 2019, past-month marijuana vaping nearly doubled among 12th graders.
The following video goes over the vaping-related results of the 2019 Monitoring the Future survey:
The increases in vaping of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, are alarming for a number of reasons. For one thing, we don’t yet know if THC’s effects differ when vaped versus when smoked in a traditional fashion or whether the amount of THC that youth are being exposed to differs with these methods.
Research still needs to be conducted to explore the possible risks and effects that vaping might have on the human body. Meanwhile, vaping has hit the market suddenly and aggressively.
Students don’t always know what their vaping liquid contains. The most popular brands on the market aren’t nicotine-free and use flavoring to make their products even more attractive to teens.
Despite the considerable increase in vaping, fewer teens reported vaping “just flavoring,” suggesting that the vaping of addictive substances (nicotine or marijuana) is becoming more prevalent. More than 8% of high school seniors who vape say they do it because they’re addicted—a statistic which has doubled over the past year. Though addiction to vaping is mostly associated with nicotine, vaping THC comes with health concerns and may be a gateway activity to nicotine vaping and conventional cigarette smoking.
Compared to other substances, adolescents typically do not regard marijuana usage as risky. In 2019, less than one-third of high school seniors responded with “great risk” when asked, “How much do you think people risk harming themselves (physically or in other ways) if they smoke marijuana regularly?” Ten years prior, more than half believed it was a great risk.
Additionally, student disapproval of regular marijuana usage has declined. The percentage of students who disapprove or strongly disapprove of smoking marijuana regularly is lower than ever before in all three grades. The combined average disapproval rating is 69.8%—more than 10% lower than in the early 2000s.
People often believe that if something is legal, then it can’t be too harmful. While direct correlation hasn’t been established, a study found a significant decrease in perceived harm associated with medical marijuana use and an increase in past-month marijuana use following the enactment of recreational marijuana laws in Washington.
Cannabis tends to affect users differently, depending on a variety of factors such as biology, how much THC the drug has, previous experience with marijuana, and the method of consumption. Teens may hear about positive experiences from their peers and think it’s perfectly safe. In fact, marijuana can affect users very differently.
Marijuana has become an increasingly large part of popular culture. Movies, TV shows, music videos, and social media often portray marijuana usage in a positive light. A lot of teens have the misconception that everyone is using it and, therefore, have a casual approach to trying it themselves.
Marijuana is categorized as a Schedule 1 substance, the category that denotes the highest level of potential abuse. While this allows for stricter regulation of the drug, it also restricts researchers’ ability to study it. An abundant amount of information on marijuana remains to be discovered. Researchers have a limited understanding of its long-term effects as well as its impact on adolescents whose brains are still developing. The crucial thing to take away is that evidence has not been found to determine that marijuana is absolutely safe for anyone, much less teenagers.
It needs to be emphasized that regular cannabis use, defined here as once a week, is not safe and may result in addiction and neurocognitive damage, especially in youth.
What researchers do seem to agree on is that teenagers should not be using marijuana. Marijuana usage has been explicitly linked with school failure. Students who use marijuana have problems with paying attention, memory retention, and learning. They tend to get lower grades and are more likely to drop out of school. Adolescents who are addicted to marijuana lose interest in activities they were formally passionate about and often lack motivation and energy.
The brain continues to develop until around the age of 25. Thus, mind-altering drugs can have a significant effect on an adolescent’s mental development. Physical effects on the brain include:
A 2019 study focused on age-related differences in the impact of cannabis use on brain and cognition. It came to three conclusions based on human cases:
Another study found that heavy or prolonged pot use may be a risk factor in triggering the first episode of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. Evidence also heavily suggests that pot smoking can lead to earlier onset of conditions that would have developed later—a concerning matter when the long-term outlook for people with certain mental disorders is better the later it develops.
In addition, pot is also associated with the development of illness in otherwise healthy individuals, meaning it is possible that psychosis would not have developed in that person if they had never smoked pot.
There is some debate about the direct effects of marijuana on IQ. A New Zealand study, conducted in part by researchers at Duke University, showed that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing marijuana use disorder lost an average of eight IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38. Even when a user quit smoking as an adult, they never fully regained the mental abilities they had lost. Furthermore, there were no notable IQ losses for people who waited until adulthood to start smoking.
On the other hand, a study conducted on pairs of twins found no definitive link between marijuana use and IQ. While marijuana users had lower test scores compared to nonusers, the difference between using and abstinent siblings was insignificant. The results of the study suggest that the same familial factors underlie marijuana initiation and low intellectual attainment. In other words, those with risk-inducing environmental causes and low IQ to begin with, are more likely to entertain the use of drugs such as marijuana.
The CDC and FDA recommend that youth, young adults, and pregnant women should never use vaping products. According to the CDC, THC has been associated with a wide range of health effects, especially with prolonged, frequent use.
An outbreak of lung injury, illness, and death in 2019 was found to be connected to Vitamin E acetate, an additive found mostly in THC-based e-cigarettes. Additionally, the evidence was not sufficient to completely rule out chemicals in THC as other possible contributors.
When you are vaping marijuana, you can put almost 100 percent pure THC. So you are delivering a very, very high dose and therefore are likely to be linked with much worse adverse events than just smoking marijuana.
Children are particularly vulnerable during major transitions or periods of instability. For example, changes in physical development like puberty or environmental shifts such as moving or divorce. Making sure that your child has the proper support during volatile life experiences can help ensure that they don’t resort to drugs. There are three transitional periods during which parents should be especially attentive:
Entering the school system. The first big transition for children is when they first leave the security of the home and become exposed to outside influences. Early adolescence is also when children are likely to encounter drug abuse for the first time.
Starting high school. Upon beginning high school, teenagers are subjected to new and increasingly complex academic and social situations. They’re also exposed to comparatively greater expectations and pressures. Additionally, drugs become more accessible, and social engagements increasingly involve drugs.
Embarking on adulthood. During late adolescence, teenagers begin their transition to adulthood. As they leave home for the first time or enter the workforce, more challenges and new stressors face young adults.
There is no foolproof way to predict if your child will start using marijuana or other drugs. However, there are biological and environmental factors to look out for. By addressing risk factors early on and paying close attention to your child’s behavior, you can reduce the likelihood of a future problem with drugs.
While inheriting the gene does not guarantee a dependency issue, it’s important to acknowledge the increased likelihood with your child. A family history of drug or alcohol abuse covers a wide-scope, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even cousins. Children are particularly at risk for substance abuse if they have a parent or caregiver who abuses substances, suffers from mental illness, or engages in criminal activity.
A person’s ability to form healthy relationships and make smart choices often stems from their early development and interactions with family members. Lack of effective parenting can have a huge impact on future drug use. Familial risk factors include having a chaotic home environment, experiencing neglect from parents or caregivers, or lacking a significant relationship with a caring adult. Additionally, children from families with a family income of less than U.S. $20,000 are more at risk for drug use.
Teenagers are particularly susceptible to their environment and peer pressure. Being surrounded by peers who partake in drug use can make it difficult for a teenager to resist, even if they have many protective factors. Constant temptation and access make it more likely for them to give in and try it. Similarly, those who have previously tried other drugs are more likely to give marijuana a try.
Psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) make a child more at risk for substance abuse. Similarly, children who show early signs of self-control issues, such as impulse control or trouble regulating their thoughts and emotions, are more likely to give in to temptation or peer pressure. Studies have shown that children with poor academic performance and inappropriate social behavior at ages 7 to 9 are more likely to be involved with substance abuse by age 14 or 15. Trauma during early childhood can also be a cause of weakened resistance or a likelihood to try drugs.
Factors that reduce the potential for drug abuse are called “protective factors.” While some circumstances are unavoidable or out of your control, the goal is for the protective factors to outweigh the risk factors.
Positive familial influences can serve as powerful protection against possible drug use. Children benefit from strong bonds with parents and other family members as well as supportive parenting that meets their needs (financial, social, cognitive, and social). Remaining actively involved in your child’s life can also function as a big roadblock to negative outside influences. Getting to know their friends, doing fun family activities, and having open lines of communication with your child work as a passive deterrence to risky behavior.
Setting expectations and clear guidelines helps adolescents distinguish right from wrong as well as understand that actions, such as drug use, have consequences. Enforcing rules and responsibilities such as chores, showing respect, driving responsibly, curfews, and attendance, help form a strong foundation for your child’s maturity and ability to make smart choices.
Students who are more successful in school and have stronger bonds to the institution are less likely to turn to drugs. Additionally, drug education programs in schools are effective in deterring drug abuse.
Teenagers with goals to strive for as well as exciting challenges or puzzles to solve, tend to be less likely to try drugs. Helping your child get involved with extracurricular activities and other pro-social opportunities will help keep them on a straight path.
One of the most influential factors in a child’s upbringing is their parents. You have the power to help introduce protective factors and combat risk factors to keep your child on the right track. Often, the more society approves of something, the harder it becomes to talk about the dangers and negative aspects of it with your children. But don’t let that dissuade you from what could be a significant barrier between your child and drug use. One of the key reasons why teens choose not to do drugs is because they know their parents would disapprove. Furthermore, children whose parents have a positive attitude toward marijuana are five times more likely to use marijuana by eighth grade.
When talking to your child, try to be open, honest, and non-judgemental. The goal is to be educational and give them all the necessary information to make the right choices on their own. Be clear and firm about your stance against marijuana use, without being aggressive or confrontational. If your child is feeling peer-pressured and unsure of how to respond to offers of marijuana, they should feel like they can (and want to) come to you for help and advice.
Before you bring up the topic with your child, make sure you do some research. If you want your child to take you seriously, you should be knowledgeable, credible, and prepared to give specifics when it comes to information. Aim to be a trustworthy and reliable source for marijuana education to your child. If they have questions, it would be ideal if you can answer them without having to look it up. Additionally, if you have personal experiences or family history that you would like to share with them, think about how much you’re willing to divulge beforehand. You don’t want to be wondering, “Should I tell them about this?” in the middle of the conversation. Being prepared will also help you ease into the discussion and will likely lead to your child feeling more confident and trusting in you. Check out the links in the resources section below to find additional information on marijuana.
When and where you chose to have the conversation can influence the direction it goes. For instance, if you try to catch your child as they’re running out the door to hang out with friends, the conversation will be rushed and seem like a mere inconvenience. You want them to, instead, feel as if the conversation is helpful to them, not just something to get through. Try talking to them during a time that’s already set aside for family, so they don’t feel as if there is somewhere else they could be or something they’d rather be doing. A good time to talk, for example, would be after a family board game night or a trip to the movies. Everyone is in good spirits, and you just experienced some fun together, so your child is more inclined to listen and take advice from you—as both a parent and a friend. It’s also important to talk to them in a place where they feel comfortable and safe. For example, somewhere within the home, such as the living room or bedroom (as long as they won’t be distracted). It’s best if they are in an environment where they feel they can speak openly and freely. For instance, a space and time without siblings around, during which they won’t be interrupted or possibly overheard and, therefore, hesitant to speak.
Often, starting the conversation is the hardest part. Not only can it be awkward, but it can also direct the flow or tone of the entire exchange. There are several different but effective approaches that you can take. Which you use will depend on your child’s attitude and natural disposition as well as the nature of your relationship with them. You can start the conversation off casually. For example, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something…” You can also start by inquiring, “Do a lot of kids smoke at your school? What kind of drugs are people doing at parties nowadays?” Try to move forward in a way that will make your child curious and keep them interested. It’s good to ask them questions. It will let you gauge their feelings on the subject and how to continue with the conversation. It also helps them feel like they’re in control and enforces the idea that their thoughts and opinions on the subject matter. In other words, they’re benefiting from a two-sided conversation and not just on the receiving end of a lecture.
After you figure out what they know and how they feel about the subject, you’ll want to make sure that they have the right information. In regards to safety, make sure that your child knows the hazards of vaping and the risks of using cannabis products. The amount of THC in marijuana has been steadily increasing over the past few decades. Consequently, today’s youth have a higher chance of a harmful reaction when they first try marijuana. Common misconceptions to clear up include: The myth that marijuana is harmless and non-addictive. Everyone is doing it when, in fact, numbers say otherwise. Trying it is a rite of passage, dispelling the idea of “you have to try it at least once.” Address concerns beyond telling them not to try marijuana. For example, edibles and other forms of marijuana appear to be less dangerous since they aren’t smoked or injected; however, this can be misleading. Since it takes longer for the dose to take effect, people will often consume more to obtain a high. You want them to consider the specific risks they are taking if they do try marijuana. As with all important choices, you want them to be working with the right information. Use facts, not scare tactics or threats, as your weapon for informed decision making.
In the end, the most important thing is that your child feels empowered to make the right judgments. Once you provide the facts, it’s time for you to entrust them with the responsibility. Your goal is not to make your child’s choices for them, but rather, to help them make informed decisions that they’ve taken the time to think through. Having the conversation early enough also helps your child plan for how they’re going to react when offered marijuana, making them more likely to be able to say no in the moment and under pressure.
Make it clear that your primary concern is their safety and well-being; actively listen to their questions and concerns. Let them know that they can call you for a ride home if they are ever in a challenging situation involving drugs.
Confirm they have an accurate understanding of the risks associated with marijuana use. Be specific about the effects that marijuana use can have on the adolescent brain.
If there’s a history of drug or alcohol abuse in your family, make sure you let your child know that they are at greater risk for developing an addiction. Approach it in the same way you would discuss a genetic disease such as diabetes. Be factual, specific, and an open book.
Talk to your child about their goals and how using marijuana might keep them from accomplishing those goals. Help them see that using marijuana isn’t just an easy way to have a good time and that it might have both short-term and long-term consequences.
Brainstorm alternatives to drug-related activities with them. Address any underlying issues, such as boredom, that may lead them to want to try marijuana. Roleplay or help them find the right words to refuse drugs. If you’re going to suggest that they say no to drugs, it helps if you help them find new and exciting pursuits to say yes to.
The following video from the National Institute on Drug Abuse answers some of the common questions that parents have about marijuana and how to talk to their kids:
Marijuana usage often results in behavioral changes, such as personality shifts and moodiness. Teenagers may become more isolated or secretive. If you’re worried that your child might be using, look out for these common signs of marijuana use:
One of the major mistakes that parents make is that they think their job is done once they finish the initial conversation. Don’t focus so much on giving information that you’re inattentive to your child’s needs. Remember to keep listening and leave the dialogue open-ended.
As a parent, if they do choose to try drugs, you need your child to feel comfortable coming to you so that you can help them. This is especially important in the case of addiction. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids Website has some great insight into how you should approach your son or daughter if you think they’re using marijuana.
A national helpline that is free, confidential, and available 24/7. Get treatment referrals and information on local facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.
An informative site on drugs and addiction specifically for helping young people. Includes help and support articles as well as a parenting blog.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) branch for drug abuse. A government agency that conducts a yearly survey on drug use. A treasure trove of knowledge on drug use, addiction, and public health. Great for learning more about the science of drugs and addiction as well as finding raw statistics. Includes informative articles and studies on clinical research and programs.
If your teenager has a problem with drugs, this guide can help steer you in the right direction. Includes information on treatment and how to find help.
A guide on preventing drug use among children and adolescents.
A NIH site specifically for teen drug abuse. It contains sections geared specifically toward teens, teachers, and parents as well as a drug and health blog.
Support group for marijuana addicts who want to stop using. Attend meetings, learn about the twelve steps, obtain a sponsor, or read about what to do as a loved one of an addict.
Drug rehab guides for addiction and mental health. Includes links to drug rehab programs for teens and children.
Regularly updated resource for information about marijuana use, effects, prevention, support, and more.
Family-run education business providing brief evidence-based positive youth and adult development programs.
NIDA. “National Survey of Drug Use and Health.” Accessed on April 16, 2020.
NIDA. “Monitoring the Future 2019 Overview, Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
AACAP. “Marijuana and Teens.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
PMC. “Considering Cannabis: The Effects of Regular Cannabis use on Neurocognition in Adolescents and Young Adults.” Accessed on April 18, 2020.
NCBI. “Age-related differences in the impact of cannabis use on the brain and cognition: a systematic review.” Accessed on April 19, 2020.
Vox. “The federal drug scheduling system, explained.” Accessed on April 21, 2020.
NIDA. “Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents.” Accessed on April 22, 2020.
NIDA. “DrugFacts: Marijuana.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
PDFK. “Preventing Teen Drug Use: Risk Factors & Why Teens Use.” Accessed on April 22, 2020.
PDFK. “How to Start Addressing Your Teen’s Drug or Alcohol Use.” Accessed on April 22, 2020.
PDFK. “Look for Warning Signs.” Accessed on April 26, 2020.
Seattle Children’s Hospital. “A parent’s guide to preventing underage marijuana use.” Accessed on April 22, 2020.
CMI. “Teen Vaping: What You Need to Know.” Accessed on April 18, 2020.
CMI. “Marijuana and Psychosis.” Accessed on April 25, 2020.
Healthline. “More Teens are Vaping Marijuana. Why Health Officials are Alarmed.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
SAMHSA. “2018 NSDUH Annual National Report.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
NIDA. “Monitoring the Future 2013 Teen Drug Use.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
NCDAS. “Drug Use Among Youth: Facts & Statistics.” Accessed on April 16, 2020.
NIDA. “Marijuana Facts for Teens.” Accessed on April 19, 2020.
PMC. “Likelihood of developing an alcohol and cannabis use disorder during youth: Association with recent use and age.” Accessed on April 21, 2020.
NIDA. “Teen Drug Use, Monitoring the Future 2019 Infograpic.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
NIDA for Teens. “Marijuana.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
NIDA. “Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
JAMA. “Association of State Recreational Marijuana Laws with Adolescent Marijuana Use.” Accessed on April 18, 2020.
HHS. “Risks of Adolescent Marijuana Use.” Accessed on April 20, 2020.
PNAS. “Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife.” Accessed on April 20, 2020.
PNAS. “Impact of adolescent marijuana use on intelligence: Results from two longitudinal twin studies.” Accessed on April 18, 2020.
CDC. “Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products.” Accessed on April 17, 2020.
PDFK. “When You Discover Your Son or Daughter is Using Drugs: Start Talking.” Accessed on April 26, 2020.