In a recent article in the New Yorker magazine, President Obama seemed to downplay the significance of marijuana by saying, “ I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” The President’s comments while factually true, are very misleading to many parents and teens that do not understand the serious implications of marijuana use. A World Health Organization study in 2011 found alcohol to be responsible for 4% of all deaths worldwide (2.5 million people). That makes alcohol one of the world’s leading health risks. While marijuana may not kill the way alcohol does, it does have potentially some very negative consequences for our youth. When we make a comparison like this one, we are minimizing the serious harmful effects of a substance that is increasingly becoming more acceptable and available to our children.
Currently, marijuana is illegal under federal law but a number of states have passed their own laws allowing for medicinal use of marijuana and more recently, recreational use. A recent CNN poll found that 55% of Americans are in favor of some form of legalized marijuana. As a counselor and addiction specialist who has been working with teens and young adults for nearly 20 years and as a parent myself, this concerns me greatly! I have seen first hand the negative impact of marijuana use on our young people. I have witnessed the pain and suffering that occurs in families when a child is addicted to marijuana, engaging in self-destructive behavior and making decisions that have serious consequences for their future. The marijuana of today is not the same drug some of us may have experimented with when we were young. It is a more potent form of the drug and one that has increased potential to impair a teen’s judgment, often leading to dependency and even other drug use. Some studies suggest the potency of marijuana has increased by 8-10 times what it was 30 years ago and anytime a drug’s powerful effects on the brain are enhanced, the potential for addiction also increases. Moreover, teens and young adults are more susceptible to addiction due to their young, developing brains. They are physiologically not capable of moderating their use and making good decisions involving powerful drugs of abuse. Marijuana is responsible for the most adolescent drug treatment admissions in this country and it is the second most commonly abused substance overall, only behind alcohol. Marijuana is not the harmless, non-addictive substance many of the supporters of legalization would have us all believe it is, particularly for our young people.
Some of the other possible long-term effects of marijuana use are cognitive impairment, problems with memory, attention, concentration and coordination. Additional effects include decreased school and work performance, increased truancy and school dropout and a higher incidence of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Increasingly, we are seeing young people admitted to hospital emergency departments suffering from psychotic episodes related to heavy marijuana use. Many young people also experience changes in personality and behavior, increased isolation, loss of interest in school, sports and other activities, as well as generally decreased motivation. One recent study in New Zealand found that persistent cannabis use beginning during the teenage years was associated with a drop in IQ score of up to 8 points by later adulthood. The adolescent and young adult can experience serious deficits as a result of prolonged marijuana use, which can have a devastating impact on performance, self-esteem, happiness and overall success in life.
‘ Our kids are constantly receiving messages that marijuana is not harmful, not addictive, it is becoming legal in many states so it must not be that bad. We are shocked to hear of all the deaths related to heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs yet we may not realize these individuals often began their life of addiction as teenagers, smoking that harmless drug called marijuana. Unfortunately, I come across many parents who do not understand the severity of this issue and often fall into the trap of thinking this is “a phase” or “a rite of passage” and something they too did when they were young. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just what kids do and it will be ok. Marijuana addiction can be more difficult to treat than other substances because of the denial associated with it and the resistance to get help. Users of marijuana may experience a more gradual decline than those who abuse more dangerous drugs but it is a decline nonetheless. Legalization is going to create more availability, a decreased perception of harm among our young people and more challenging terrain for parents and kids to navigate. Let’s do the loving and responsible thing for our children by not buying into all the hype and allowing marijuana to become even more prevalent and accepted in our community. Most of us want nothing more than for our kids to grow up safe, healthy and drug free with the tools necessary to be successful in life. More marijuana use among our young people is not going to make our job as parents any easier. Hopefully all parents will give this issue some very careful and thoughtful consideration before jumping on the marijuana legalization bandwagon.
***Ray Estefania is an addiction specialist and Co-founder and Executive Director of Family Recovery Specialists, a Miami based treatment program and recovery practice. He is also a member of the board of directors of Informed Families, a nationally known prevention organization. Mr. Estefania is a widely recognized speaker to schools, parent groups and community organizations and has been a guest on both radio and television programs on topics related to prevention, parenting, addiction and recovery. Ray Estefania can be contacted via-email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://familyrecoveryspecialists.com/