Note: This is the first in a series of blogs exploring many of the key substance abuse risks for teens.

We often hear marijuana is harmless and poses no threat to the brain or overall health. Seeing states begin to legalize the use of marijuana can reinforce these ideas. It is important for parents to stay informed so they know how to formulate an educated, rational response instead of reacting emotionally or out of fear.

Here are the facts:

Long-term drug abuse does impair brain functioning.
In a large-scale study in New Zealand, marijuana use was linked to an average loss of eight IQ points. This was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” For those who started smoking marijuana heavily before 18, testing showed striking mental decline even after they quit taking the drug. This is evidence that smoking marijuana during adolescence (a period where the brain is heavily engaged in wiring and organizing itself) can have negative, long-lasting effects.

Marijuana is addictive.
Drugs (as opposed to natural rewards that occur in daily life, such as eating) release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a natural chemical (neurotransmitter) in the brain that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The effect of such a powerful “reward” in the brain’s pleasure center is the desire to recreate this experience again and again.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana becomes addictive for one in six users who start using as a teenager. Among teenagers who receive substance abuse treatment, marijuana accounts for 63 percent of admissions for ages 12-14 and 69 percent for those ages 15-17.

Marijuana makes driving unsafe by compromising judgment and impairing concentration, alertness, coordination and reaction time.
Marijuana is the most commonly identified illegal drug in fatal accidents. Lawmakers in Washington and Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana by adults was recently legalized, are now scrambling to create laws that protect travelers from marijuana-intoxicated drivers, recognizing the imminent danger.

Marijuana affects school and learning.
Compared with their peers who do not use marijuana, students who smoke marijuana are more likely to earn lower grades and even drop out of school. Marijuana affects attention, motivation, memory and learning for days and sometimes weeks after use. Those who smoke daily or even weekly are constantly operating on a reduced ability to learn and understand.

Many negative effects are associated with use of marijuana.
Long-term users of marijuana report feeling less satisfied with life overall, including having decreased physical or mental health, experiencing problems in their relationships and memory, earning lower salaries and enjoying less success in their careers. Marijuana has also been linked to psychosis and panic. This means during intoxication, it can lead to hearing and seeing things that are not really there. People may experience paranoia. In those with schizophrenia (or possibly even just a vulnerability to the disease), marijuana use can increase the risk of psychosis.

Marijuana use during pregnancy may cause harm to the fetus. And marijuana has been associated with many mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and personality disturbances. Many describe experiencing a lack of motivation or drive to engage in activities they used to find fun or rewarding.

What can parents do?

Watch for signs of use that could include:
o    Changes in behavior, mood or dress
o    Deteriorating relationships with family and/or friends
o    Missing school
o    Decreased performance in school
o    Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy
o    Changes in eating or sleeping habits
o    Cannot explain where their money goes
o    Starting to use eye drops for no other apparent reason

Signs of marijuana intoxication include:
o    Red, bloodshot eyes
o    Dizzy or lack of coordination
o    Odor on clothes or in bedroom
o    Can’t remember what just happened
o    Seem silly for no other apparent reason

The above signs do not mean that drug use is definitely taking place, but they are signals that could indicate use.

Openly talk with your kids about your suspicions. You have influence! Stay actively engaged and make sure they understand your feelings and expectations related to their behavior.

Many young people believe generalities about marijuana such as “it’s not that harmful” or “everybody does it.” While harping on them may not be helpful, providing cold, hard facts based on research is often very effective. Recognize your teen’s ability to make choices, and provide her with the information and encouragement to make informed decisions.

For more information, contact Compass Rose Academy.