Four teenagers with arms around each other's shoulders

Marijuana Impacts Young Brains Still ‘Under Construction’

Posted on Thursday, September 27, 2018 by Anna Hankins, MD

Anna Hankins, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician practicing at CVMC Pediatric Primary Care - Berlin.

Vermont recently joined many states in legalizing marijuana possession for adults. This continues a trend in our society of viewing marijuana differently than other illegal drugs. Drug use among teenagers is declining, but marijuana use is increasing. Many adolescents consider marijuana to be safer than tobacco. Many parents share that view, saying things like, “At least it’s natural.”

As a local pediatrician, it can be challenging to push against the prevailing opinion that marijuana use is benign. There are several reasons marijuana use in teenagers is harmful:

1. Learning

We know marijuana use hurts short-term memory, concentration, attention span and problem-solving ability. In my own practice, I notice that teenagers who are using marijuana regularly often experience a significant drop in their grades. This is no surprise, given how important memory, concentration, attention and problem-solving are to learning.

2. Long-term effects

The human brain does not finish developing until about age 25, so teenagers’ brains are still “under construction.” Marijuana can affect the developing brain. The effects of marijuana on the developing brain are still being studied, but it appears that heavy use of marijuana during adolescence can cause permanent brain changes, including decreased IQ, which continue even after marijuana use stops.

3. Danger

Because their brains are not yet fully developed, teenagers are naturally impulsive. Marijuana decreases impulse control and reaction time, causing potential for increased risky behaviors and driving accidents.

4. Addiction

Marijuana is addictive. According to the National Institutes of Health, 9 percent of people who experiment with marijuana become addicted, but this increases to 17 percent in teenagers and up to 25 percent to 50 percent in teenagers who use daily.

5. Mental health

As research on marijuana and adolescents continues, studies are showing an association between marijuana use in teenagers and serious mental health problems including depression and psychosis.

The good news for parents and for people who work with adolescents like me and my fellow pediatricians is that teenagers are smart and appreciate knowing the facts. The more we educate our teenagers that marijuana use has significant risks, the more we can empower our teenagers to avoid it. Teenagers today are already taking fewer risks than earlier generations—among them, there is less drug use, less tobacco use, less alcohol use. With more information and teaching, we can decrease marijuana use as well.

Editor’s note: Anna Hankins, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician practicing at CVMC Pediatric Primary Care - Berlin, 246 Granger Road.

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