One vote that got a big YES in the November elections was marijuana. As the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana use is on the rise and the positive uses for marijuana are suggested, it is easy to forget about the risk factors related to marijuana use. No matter your political and personal views on the legalization of marijuana, we have to also be cautious of the negative effects of marijuana. In my experience in working with adolescents and adults who use marijuana recreationally, their marijuana use is downplayed. It is often thought of as being a way to relax, helpful with sleep, or, at least, not harmful. However, just because marijuana laws are changing across the country does not mean that the impact of its use is no longer a factor to be explored. Alcohol is a prime example. While legal for adults, alcohol is highly addictive to some and can have a harmful effect on the lives of people who use alcohol even when they are not addicted. Marijuana is often believed to be a substance that can be healing, beneficial, and fun but it is important to look at the full picture.
This is not your parent’s marijuana. Medical marijuana is different from recreational marijuana and marijuana bought on the street in that, depending on the chemical being used from the marijuana plant, it is often not intoxicating (NIDA, 2015). Legalized recreational marijuana is more regulated than marijuana bought on the street. Product testing is becoming a standard to help inform consumers about the product they are buying (Drug Policy Alliance, 2016). However, currently much of the country does not buy marijuana from dispensaries and the marijuana they are buying is not regulated, which can be risky in that the strength and potency of marijuana has been on the rise. The THC content in marijuana has almost tripled since 1999 (The National Institute). It has also become popular to use marijuana extracts, often called dabbing, which delivers even larger amounts of THC and can be dangerous to the user (NIDA, 2016).
What about the brain? And other risk factors. More research is needed to fully understand the short and long-term effects of marijuana use. However, we know that marijuana has an impact on the areas of our brain that are in charge of learning and memory, coordination, and judgment. The brain of marijuana users who use regularly and began their use as teens may not reach its full potential (NIDA, 2016). A teenage brain is still growing and developing, leaving teens at greater risk for the negative effects marijuana has on the brain (CSAM).
Beyond the effects on the brain, marijuana use can cause respiratory issues and increase the risk for mental health problems including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Plus, teens with a family history of schizophrenia who smoke marijuana may develop psychosis and advance the symptoms of schizophrenia. Additionally, much like alcohol, the effects of marijuana make it dangerous to drive. Marijuana impairs a driver’s “alertness, concentration, coordination, and reaction time” (NIDA, 2016).
Marijuana is addictive. Unlike some popular beliefs, marijuana can be addictive to some people and marijuana usage beginning in the teenage years leaves a person up to seven times more likely to become addicted (The National Institute). Most teenage marijuana users do not go on to use other drugs but have a higher risk of using other drugs than those who refrain from marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco use as a teenager (NIDA, 2016). Additionally, many people are not aware that regular marijuana users who stop using marijuana can experience withdrawal symptoms including irritability, anxiety, and sleeplessness (The National Institute).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not identify marijuana as medicine but the chemicals in marijuana are being used medicinally in parts of the country to treat a variety of symptoms and conditions (NIDA, 2015). The legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes is growing. While there may be some positive uses of marijuana, we cannot forget about the impact marijuana use can have on our health, our brain, and our safety. It is important that marijuana is viewed realistically and the risk factors are taken into account, especially in teenagers who are still developing.
California Society of Addiction Medicine (2009). Impact of marijuana on children and
adolescents. Retrieved from http://www.csam-asam.org/sites/default/files/