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A Modern Guide to Teen Marijuana Use

Marijuana use is big business. You only have to drive along the freeway (especially in college towns) to see cannabis billboards everywhere. But the legalized marijuana used these days, including for recreational use, is an entirely different experience than the marijuana most parents experienced as young adults — if they used it at all.

So, what do parents need to know about teen marijuana use and what the research shows? Dr. Cassandra Simms, the residential psychiatrist at Embark at The Forge, a residential treatment center for boys in Benton, Tennessee, shared some insights.

While marijuana has become legal in some states, it isn’t legal for those who are under 21 years old. Therefore, it is illegal for your teen. It also can have negative consequences for those who use it, especially teens.

“The teen brain is still developing — teens’ attention and emotion centers are still developing,” Simms said.

According to an American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report, the adolescent brain does not fully develop until the early 20s, and studies of brain function in youth with heavy or regular use of cannabis show potential abnormalities across brain regions, including those affecting memory. In addition, the report stated, long-term marijuana use that began in adolescence showed that deficits in cognitive areas including executive function (e.g., problem-solving skills) and processing speed were not recovered by adulthood, even if cannabis use was discontinued.

And, according to a Canadian neuroscientist, the adolescent brain (still going through brain development) is more sensitive to tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active chemical in marijuana that makes people high.

Therapeutic Advances in Pharmacology reports that marijuana is composed of over 400 chemicals — 60 of them classified as cannabinoids, with the potential to cause physical harm and marijuana addiction. The more concentrated it becomes, the more addictive it becomes, and the more harm it can cause, such as with marijuana use disorder.

Marijuana Facts: This Isn’t the Same Illicit Drug Some Tried in High School

In the early 1980s, the THC content was, on average, 4%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2018, the THC content of marijuana plants was over 15% because plants have been specially bred for higher THC content.

The NIDA also reported that marijuana resins and concentrates can contain three to five times the amount of THC as the plant itself, and concentrated marijuana products known as waxes and dabs can have up to 80% THC.

What does this mean for my teen?

Parents should keep in mind that today’s marijuana is far more potent than before, and there are many health effects tied to marijuana use:

  • Poor judgment and decision making.
  • Lack of coordination and balance.
  • Relationship problems.
  • Learning, memory, and concentration issues.
  • Potential addiction.
  • Loss of motivation.
  • Increased risk of mental illness and mental health problems, such as depression and psychosis.

“I didn’t see the effects of marijuana like this 17 years ago,” Simms said. “I see more kids that are paranoid and delusional, and with more dissociation or depersonalization complaints.”

According to Medical News Today, dissociation is a feeling of being detached from things, while depersonalization is a feeling of being detached from oneself and one’s own identity.

“The news doesn’t necessarily educate or talk about these issues, so parents and kids don’t even make the connection,” Simms said. She added that the higher-potency marijuana increases the chance of dependency, which leads to more biological, psychological, and social side effects.

What Should Parents Do To Prevent or Stop Their Teens From Using Marijuana?

Simms recommended that parents of teens educate themselves on modern cannabis. One resource to start with is the e-book “Marijuana: Facts Parents Need to Know” from the NIDA.

“Parents need to educate themselves on the different forms of marijuana and how to find them because the various forms are smaller and harder to detect by smell, so they are harder to find at home and school,” Simms said.

“Once they know what to look for, parents need to sweep rooms every once in a while for signs of substance use.”

Pay attention to your teen’s moods

“As adults, we have to be careful about blaming everything on being a teenager and puberty,” Simms said, adding that there will be mood instability with adolescence.

“If you add anything extra, those moods are going to be intensified,” she said. “Kids tend to become more irritable, more aggressive, and more defiant and can even appear depressed with chronic marijuana use.”

Simms said behaviors may appear more sneaky to the point where parents notice money and personal belongings start to disappear, and behaviors become more reckless.

Do not promote marijuana use as a way to self-medicate for ADHD, depression, or anxiety

“Some use that as a reason,” Simms said regarding using marijuana to address focus and mental health issues, “but I also think that’s a form of manipulation to get parents to say it’s OK. ‘Using marijuana helps me sleep.’ ‘It helps me not be sad.’ ‘It helps me not be anxious.’

Marijuana’s not the first line of treatment in these cases. There are legal, safer ways to treat those issues that don’t possibly lead to other issues.”

If your teen is dealing with sleeping issues, depression, or anxiety, talk with your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider.

Seek treatment for marijuana use or substance use disorder

If your teen is using marijuana and needs help, Simms recommended first looking for a good outpatient therapist who specializes in addictive behaviors, such as cannabis use disorder.

“If they have issues such as anxiety, consider getting a child or adolescent psychiatrist or a pediatrician on board,” Simms said, “because if they’re self-medicating and you don’t treat the underlying issues, then it is more difficult for our youth to stop.”

Simms said an individual therapist and medication management may be deemed necessary.

If teens need a stronger drug use treatment program, options include an intensive outpatient program (IOP). If their behaviors and use become more intensified and problematic even while getting therapy — especially if the drug use starts affecting their functioning, such as skipping school, legal charges, etc. — an inpatient program for drug use is recommended, such as short-term residential treatment.

“A 30-day program where they can live and breathe treatment and go through detox safely while not having any exposure to drugs or drug use can be helpful,” Simms said.

Once your teen completes an inpatient program, they will need to re-enter life and establish new patterns gradually. An IOP could be an option during that time. Parents should strive to ensure their teen is compliant with their individual therapist and medication management.

Marijuana Presents a Challenge for You, the Parent

Considering the negative short- and long-term effects of marijuana use for teens, it’s imperative you talk to your child about cannabis and keep an eye out for signs your teen is using it. If you think your teen may have an issue with marijuana use or any other drug use, get them help quickly.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.