Adolescents may suffer long-term consequences from marijuana use
- Learning and memory
Written by Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by the Healthy Futures Initiative
Lost financial aid, criminal charges and missed job opportunities are just some of the consequences of adolescent marijuana use, but it’s marijuana’s effects on the teenage brain that has mental health professionals most concerned.
Throughout adolescence, the brain is extremely sensitive to damage from drug exposure, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). That’s because the brain is still developing until a person’s early to mid-20s.
THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, attaches to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors and interferes with the brain’s ability to function properly. Those cannabinoid receptors, known as the brain’s endocannabinoid system, are immature during adolescence, according to the APA. That system is important for cognition, neurodevelopment, stress response and emotional control.
According to a recent report by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, there is substantial evidence that adolescents who use marijuana weekly or more often are less likely to graduate from high school. The authors found moderate evidence that teens and young adults who use frequently are more likely to have ongoing impairment of cognitive and academic abilities for at least 28 days after use.
Dr. Jeffrey Mahler, a licensed psychologist in Summit County, said he’s seen teenage patients who use marijuana struggle with memory and their ability to focus.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation with youth about marijuana,” Mahler said. “Since it’s been legalized (in Colorado), and since it’s a plant, a lot of people assume that it’s not harmful or bad for them.”
The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for important functions such as impulse control, attention, focusing, organization and personality, is the last area of the brain to fully develop. Marijuana inhibits those functions, resulting in higher consequences in brains that aren’t fully developed, Mahler said.
Teenagers might hear about the supposed benefits of marijuana — things like medicinal uses or its calming effects on those who suffer from anxiety — but information about its harmful effects on young people isn’t as widely discussed.
The legal age to use marijuana in Colorado is 21, and some scientists and health professionals think even that is too young, given the brain’s level of development at that age.
Hillary Sunderland, a licensed clinical social worker and addiction counselor for Mind Springs Health in Frisco, said THC content in today’s marijuana is especially concerning. THC content in the 1970s and 1980s was in the neighborhood of 1 or 2 percent, she said, while today some marijuana strains have as much as 20 to 30 percent THC or higher.
“Kids are really affected by the chemical changes marijuana produces, but there’s not a lot of awareness,” Sunderland said.
Marijuana’s effects on the brain’s reward system, for example, can make activities that used to be fun seem less rewarding or interesting, both Mahler and Sunderland said.
But warning adolescents about the dangers doesn’t always work, so education and awareness are what most mental health professionals practice.
“We could say, ‘in 30 years, you’ll have the memory of a 100-year-old person,’ but they’re not going to take that into consideration,” Sunderland said. “(Teenagers) aren’t always receptive to advice so you have to develop their awareness on how marijuana affects them.”
Awareness also seems to be lacking for many adults. Mahler has seen incidents where adolescents are obtaining marijuana illegally from adults who have bought it legally. Just like alcohol, it is illegal in Colorado to purchase marijuana for anyone under the age of 21.
Adults who have chosen to use the drug legally need to remember the example it might set for children, he said, adding that they also should make sure it’s safely stored where children cannot access it.
“If you are going to use it, use it discreetly,” Mahler said. “Smoking marijuana in front of your kids legitimizes it. … Parents need to be careful that they’re not modeling the use of marijuana for children whose brains are still developing.”
For more information, visit the Healthy Futures Initiative online at http://www.co.summit.co.us/1042/HFI-Resource-Referral.
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