Marijuana legalization clouds teen perception of risk, calls for discussion

Marijuana legalization: While many Colorado residents rang in the new year by lining up outside newly opened pot dispensaries, parents around the country are facing new challenges in educating teens about the risks of marijuana use. 

Brennan Linsley/AP Photo
Customers stand in a snaking line numbering several hundred people, shortly after the opening of 3D Cannabis Center, which opened as a legal recreational retail outlet in Denver at 8am on Jan. 1.

Yesterday, for the first time, residents of Colorado were able to walk into a store and legally purchase marijuana without a prescription. While the nation eyes Colorado to see how legalization will affect traffic accident rates, tax revenues, and crime, parents in every state are probably going to have to field some new arguments from teens about the dangers of marijuana use.

“The word ‘legal’ does not mean ‘not harmful,’ and that should be every parent’s mantra when talking about it.” says Jon Mattleman a mental health counselor and youth worker for the town of Needham, Mass. “It’s really important to try to separate those two words.”

Studies have shown that marijuana use during adolescence can have negative effects on cognitive development.

Even after abstaining from marijuana use for 30 days, heavy adolescent smokers exhibited “subtle deficits in attention, executive function, and memory,” researchers at The University of California have found.

“There’s a reason why when they did legalize it, they set 21-years-old,” as the minimum age for purchase, says Tim Ryan, a prevention specialist from Freedom from Chemical Dependency, a global non-profit substance prevention organization based in Newton, Mass. “There’s no evidence suggesting that marijuana is anything but not good for the developing brain.”

Nevertheless, the number of teenagers partaking in marijuana does appear to be on the rise, at least partially due to a reduced perception of risk among teens who have been following the various legal debates around the country around legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana.

In 2005, 74 percent of 8th graders, 66 percent of 10th graders and 58 percent of 12th graders believe using marijuana was risky, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the University of Michigan for the National Institutes of Health. Last year, those numbers fell across the board, to just 61 percent of 8th graders 47 percent of 10th graders and 40 percent of 12th graders.

Mr. Mattleman has also seen a reduced understanding of the risks of intoxication among the students that he works with in Needham, especially when it comes to driving under the influence.

While teens of decades past seemed to internalize the need for a designated driver, it seems that today’s definition of designated driver has shifted for many young people. Teens today tend to rely on “the kid that has had the least amount to drink, or more typically the kid that’s smoking marijuana and not drinking,” he says. “That has been a very sad and very frightening shift.”

Nearly a quarter of teenagers surveyed by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions admitted to driving while somehow intoxicated. Among teens that reported driving while under the influence of marijuana, 75 percent said that they did not believe that choice had impaired their driving in any way, and 34 percent believed that it actually improved their driving skills.

In actuality, marijuana has been found to adversely affect “drivers’ attentiveness, perception of time and speed, an ability to draw on information obtained from past experiences,” according to the NIH website on Drugged Driving. “After alcohol, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana, is the substance most commonly found in the blood of impaired drivers, fatally injured drivers, and motor vehicle crash victims.”

As sobering as those statistics are for parents, they mean little for many teenagers who typically have a difficult time seeing themselves as vulnerable.

“Teenagers are good statisticians,” says Richard Gallagher, an NYU professor of child and adolescent therapy. “They know that most people that use substances don’t get into serious trouble. They know that most people don’t get injured…. They don’t recognize that these things can happen because they end up spending more time thinking about when it doesn’t happen as opposed to when it does happen.”

It’s up to parents to help teens understand risk, Dr. Gallagher says.

“I think parents should be able to say to their kids, ‘Look, it is illegal in our setting, it’s illegal in all settings for it to be used under the age of 21, and there’s a reason for that. It does have an affect on you and I’m concerned that it can have an affect on your brain and what you do afterward. I think that it puts you at risk for making bad decisions and I know that it does affect you for a couple of days after you use it.’ ”

While teens underestimate the potential risks of marijuana use, they also tend to overestimate the prevalence of use, Mr. Ryan has found.

“Kids tend to think there’s a lot more marijuana use going on than there actually is. There’s a big perception problem. Although the laws are becoming more relaxed the majority of people still choose not to do it. That’s something that definitely should be part of the conversation.”

However, many teens fall back on the well-worn adolescent excuse, “But everyone is doing it.”

Mattleman, Ryan, and Gallagher encourage parents to help their teens see that in the case of marijuana, that simply isn’t true.

“Yes, it’s true that by 12th grade a high percentage of kids are using, but not all the kids are doing it,” Mattleman says. In fact, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, about two thirds of kids are not doing it, no matter what your kids say.

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