Marijuana is a product of the cannabis plant and its main active chemical is THC. It poses substantial health and safety risks to young people, yet it is the most widely used drug among this population.
The teen and early adult years are when our children are most vulnerable to marijuana’s harmful effects. It can affect how their brains develop, grades, relationships and physical health. Risk for addiction increases too.
National trends have shown generally low rates of youth marijuana use. Still, a recent spike in adolescent and young adult use, coupled with a decade-long decline in thinking about marijuana as risky or harmful, is concerning.
Regardless of whether a young person uses marijuana “to feel good” or “to feel better,” environment often shapes their beliefs and attitudes. These, in turn, influence choices around marijuana use and its potential consequences.
A family history of substance use or addiction increases risk of use. Risk also increases with a parent or older sibling who uses marijuana, along with easy access to the drug in the home, neighborhood or at school.
Research shows that having peers who use substances is one of the strongest predictors of a young person’s likelihood of trying and using a drug. In our national survey of teens, we found that most who said they have a friend who uses drugs reported having more than one friend who does so.
Movies, TV shows, music and social media are strong influences in young people’s lives which tend to glorify marijuana use and downplay its harms. We surveyed teens, and a third reported that their main source of information about drugs is social media, other teenagers or the internet – sources that are often unreliable.
Marijuana, more than other substances, receives a lot of attention due to nationwide legalization efforts. It’s often viewed as a harmless substance. Therefore, teens and young adults tend to discount its risk. About three-quarters of adolescents believe infrequent marijuana use does not harm the body. The majority believes it is safer than alcohol even though we know each substance has its own set of risks.
Some young people use marijuana to try to relieve their feelings of depression or anxiety, sometimes the result of more responsibilities or school pressures. Marijuana use can worsen mental illness and lead to addiction in some individuals.
The strength or potency of THC – the psychoactive ingredient responsible for the “high” associated with marijuana – has increased steadily since the 1960s. Between 1995 and 2018, the average THC concentration in leaf marijuana increased nearly fourfold, from 3.96% to 15.61%. There has also been an increase in ER visits involving marijuana, suggesting that the drug’s current strength is responsible for worse health consequences than decades past. Higher potency is also associated with more severe dependence and a greater likelihood among adolescents of developing psychosis and anxiety disorder.
Marijuana use can affect people differently. The most common effects include:
Adolescents and young adults are among the most vulnerable to the harms of marijuana. Substances like marijuana directly interfere with brain development, especially the parts of the brain responsible for decision making, reward seeking and impulse control.
Although there is conflicting information about the effects of marijuana on mental and physical health, research points to several conclusions:,
Much like alcohol, marijuana affects judgment and general motor skills, which is especially risky for new and inexperienced drivers. Driving while high is not safer than driving while drunk.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of drivers found to have marijuana in their system is higher than drivers who test positive for alcohol. This is a reverse of findings from over 10 years ago. In fact, our national survey of teens found that 83% said they would feel very unsafe to ride in a car with a driver who just drank alcohol. However, only 74% said the same about driving with someone who just used marijuana. Among teen drivers who said they have used marijuana in the past month, nearly half said they have driven after using marijuana.
Marijuana, just like any other drug, can lead to addiction. It affects the brain’s reward system, and the likelihood of addiction increases considerably for those who start young. Symptoms of marijuana use disorder can include:
Individuals in late adolescence and early adulthood, especially males, are at the highest risk for developing this disorder.
Recognizing the different ways young people use marijuana is important to identify use and protect our young people from harm. While smoking remains the most common method of use, many teens believe there are safer or more discreet ways to use marijuana.
Many young people believe that legalizing marijuana means that it’s safe to use, no matter the age. Research tells us that when teens and young adults believe there is little risk in using marijuana, rates of use increase.
National data indicate that in all states that have legalized recreational marijuana as of 2018, reported rates of first use among adolescents are 12-63% higher than the national average.
The marijuana industry is eager to promote use to young people as they can become long-term, heavy and loyal users of the drug. The industry has already begun to use successful strategies borrowed from tobacco and alcohol promotions. It’s not surprising that edibles resembling candy and other snacks are popular with young people.
Effective prevention and treatment, coupled with removing criminal penalties for personal possession and use (decriminalization), will address most of the concerns people rightly have regarding racial inequities and harsh drug laws without creating a money-making machine that ultimately harms young people’s health and safety.
Despite what many parents believe and feel, you have tremendous influence over whether your children use substances, including marijuana. Kids themselves have shared that their parents have the greatest influence over their attitudes and behaviors around substances.
You are an essential buffer between your child and the many influences that encourage them to use marijuana. Try to do your homework and find up-to-date information on the how, where and why young people use marijuana. Be ready with honest answers, shared in an age-appropriate way, so that they see you as a good source of information.
By talking early, you are helping frame a healthy mindset when it comes to marijuana. Pre-middle school and high school conversations can lessen your child’s intention to try or use in the future, as well as influence how they approach friendships with peers who do use substances. It’s important to keep talking as they get older, too. The time when parents pull away often coincides with a period of increased risk of teen substance use. Try to balance setting clear expectations and rules about drug use, while granting more choice, flexibility and independence for less risky behaviors.
Look for opportunities to discuss marijuana with your child calmly and casually. Conversation starters can be news stories, school lessons, advertisements, seeing someone use marijuana on TV or in a movie or smelling it in public. Second, be ready to listen, understand their perspective and try to avoid lecturing. It can help to start the conversation with open-ended questions about their perception of marijuana use, such as “Why do you think kids try marijuana?” and “What do you know about the risks of using it?”
These conversations aim to acknowledge marijuana’s potential appeal and help them weigh the risks against the perceived benefits. Try not to use scare tactics or threaten. Instead, explain that you genuinely care about their health. Do your best to have these conversations frequently and, if you can, before they try marijuana for the first time.
If there is a history of addiction in the family, your child’s risk of developing a problem with marijuana increases. As you would with any family disease, explain why they need to be more careful than their peers about substance use.
For more information about how to talk with your child about marijuana, please see our Marijuana Talk Kit.
Calmly explain why you don’t want your child to use marijuana but also be sure they understand that your main concern is their health and safety. Let them know that you will always be there to help them if they are in an unsafe situation, regardless of whether it involves marijuana use. If you choose to set consequences for their marijuana use, make sure your child knows what these consequences are in advance.
If you use marijuana – whether in front of your child or not – you should anticipate that they might call you out on it (“But you smoke weed too!”). Take the time to reflect on, and perhaps reevaluate, your own use – especially if your child is watching. Think about the effect your behavior has on them and the example you are setting. Using a substance to relieve stress or as a coping mechanism can send the wrong message. It is also important to keep any marijuana or drug paraphernalia out of your child’s reach.
You’re busy. They’re busy. Still, try to find opportunities to engage in open and unhurried conversation. Share thoughts and opinions and have heart-to-heart discussions. Your ability to check in on your child – face-to-face and regularly – can make a real difference. This can take place anytime and anywhere, as long as you have a routine to be together.
During the teen and young adult years, any use poses health and safety risks and increases the likelihood of addiction. In case your child’s health, relationships, grades or everyday life is suffering due to marijuana use, you may need to seek professional help. Even if they don’t use marijuana frequently, it should still be addressed.
Emotions can run high but rely on the facts. It is important to keep lines of communication open and show your concern, but avoid threats and punishment.
Ask your child why they use marijuana, and try to understand what’s driving their decision. Is it social pressure? Curiosity? Or, is it a way to cope with stress, anxiety or depression? Their answers can help you address the underlying motivations and manage them in a safer or healthier way. Some examples of questions can include: What do you enjoy about using marijuana? How does it make you feel? What other ways can you think of that make you feel the same way?
It is also important to challenge young people on their perceptions of what is ‘normal’ when it comes to youth marijuana use. Many young people (and parents) overestimate the number of teens and young adults who use marijuana. This can increase the risk that young people will use it to fit in with their peers.
Depending on your child’s level of marijuana use, we provide different ways to get help and support.
Our text messaging program, Help & Hope by Text, can help you guide your child away from marijuana use and toward healthier behavior. You can learn skills to manage parenting challenges with our e-learning courses, and our weekly online support community provides parents and caregivers with practical solutions in a safe and caring environment. The Partnership’s parent coaching program extends our peer-to-peer support, pairing parents with a volunteer coach to address a child’s substance use. You may find that your child is unable to stop using marijuana or significantly cut down. Our helpline specialists can provide personalized guidance and help you navigate the treatment system if needed.
Parents are up against many contrary forces when trying to prevent youth marijuana use. Among these are peer pressure, media influences, legalization efforts and young people’s natural tendency to take risks. With patience, love and the right interventions, you can help your child understand marijuana’s dangers, prevent them from developing a problem and encourage them to make healthier choices.