Marijuana and the teenage brain

By Joel Reynoza

Many youth today accept marijuana as medicine and one can say that this troubling trend has led to the normalization of marijuana use among young people.

I work in the drug and alcohol prevention field and have taught life skills to 6th grade students for about four years now. Every year when the topic of marijuana comes up the outcome is about the same: “that it is a medicine and could be good for you.”

A 2015 survey concluded that 35% of 12th graders in the U.S report using marijuana in the past year. This amount of use can be attributed to the relaxed attitudes of their peers and family members and the misinformation presented by the media. As a prevention professional I am writing here today in the hopes that parents and community members take the harmful health effects of this drug more seriously.  

The reality of marijuana is that it is especially harmful to young people. During pre-teens and throughout the teenage years the brain is going through a massive development phase. Dr. Gruber, PhD. Director of the MIND program at McLean Hospital/Harvard medical school, states that during this time of development and into the early mid-20’s the brain is particularly sensitive to damage from drug exposure.

In addition, addiction is one of the potential consequences of early use by adolescents. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, adults who use marijuana have a 9% chance of becoming addicted, as opposed to teenagers whose rate jumps to 17%, which translates to adolescents almost being twice as likely to become addicted to marijuana.  

One of the short term side effects of marijuana is impaired body movement which severely affects one’s ability to drive. Another side effect is reduced thinking and problem solving skills which leads to doing poorly in school and higher dropout rates.  The chemical Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the drug that produces the sensation of being high and that leads to being impaired and activities that were once really easy such as paying attention in class and driving are no longer easy, nor safe. 

The long-term effects of marijuana use on the brain are much more severe. Marijuana use is linked to anxiety, depression and even schizophrenia in some studies. This can affect a person’s quality of life and their role in the community. THC affects the information processed by part of the brain (hippocampus) that controls learning and memory. For long-term users; marijuana physically alters the brain volume and damages the brain’s white matter. White matter in the brain helps communication among the neurons and those who reported using marijuana 5 times in the past 7 days and have used more than 2,500 times in their lives had physical damage to the white matter in their brains.

That same study was able to link white matter changes to higher impulsivity rates. In the past four years my experience with young people has taught me that impulsivity is the action that creates many problems for them. They act before they think about the outcomes or consequences. This type of behavior can have a direct impact on society like violence, car accidents, and uneducated-unproductive youth. 

It is important for us to speak to our parents and community members about the harms caused by marijuana. Young people should not treat marijuana as something healthy; it should be treated for what it is: a drug. Misinformation and marketing towards young people can cause a lot of problems for families who are unaware of the toll marijuana takes on teenagers.

Like alcohol, marijuana should not be treated as a “rite of passage,” because the effects on the brain could be permanent. The short-term effects of driving while under the influence or dropping out of school will have devastating effects on our young people. We need to think about the damage it can cause to our brains, and our lives.

It is our job to inform the community about the dangers of marijuana use for teenagers, we need to educate ourselves on how this drug affects our lives, and we need to be advocates for healthy communities.