Will Pot Legalization Boost Teens’ Use?

By Christina Elston

teen marijuana useIn November, Californians voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana. And while details are still being worked out, parents of teens and tweens should take action now and start having conversations about pot with their kids, says Diane Tanaka, MD, medical director of the Teenage and Young Adult Health Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Why? Because as use of marijuana becomes more tolerated, kids are less likely to consider its potential dangers. “Adolescents don’t consider it a drug anymore,” Tanaka says.

But the risks are real, because pot has changed since today’s parents were tweens. Marijuana has higher levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the element that produces the “high”) than was found in previous decades. “It’s not the pot of the 60s and 70s, or even the 80s,” says Tanaka. She adds that studies have shown this more-potent marijuana can be addictive and cause withdrawal symptoms.

Marijuana use can also impact long-term memory, and could even impact IQ for younger users. “There is impact on brain development,” Tanaka says, “and there could be more of an impact the younger you are.” She points out that we don’t know as much as we could about the impact of the drug. Studies are difficult to conduct while marijuana is illegal at the federal level.

Tanaka recommends talking with your kids about marijuana around age 9 or 10, “just to go over the facts.” She warns against getting emotional or overhyping the risks, because if your kids do experiment without incident, they’ll be less likely to believe you in the future.

If you smoke pot yourself, or have, you’ll need to be honest about that. “Oftentimes teens know what their parents are up to,” Tanaka says.

Stick to the facts and explain how marijuana use is different for kids because teen brains are still going through rapid growth. Point out the potential risks to their IQ (and future college admissions and success) and also the dangers of driving, skateboarding, biking and other recreational activities while under pot’s influence. In some ways, it is the same conversation you would have about drinking. “Just put in marijuana instead,” says Tanaka.

Signs that your child is regularly using marijuana include:

  • Changes in mood, especially becoming more irritable and withdrawn,
  • Abrupt changes in friends,
  • Declining grades and
  • The smell of marijuana on their clothes or paraphernalia in their rooms or backpacks.

If you see these signs, it’s definitely time to sit your teen down for a talk and remind them of marijuana’s risks – and that its use is still illegal for those under age 21. You can also seek help from your pediatrician, who can do a drug screen to confirm marijuana use and refer you to a specialist if needed.

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