Charlotte LeBlanc’s son began smoking pot around age 14, a fact LeBlanc chalked up to normal teen behavior. But that benign assessment changed quickly. She says her son was addicted to pot by age 18 and suffered from psychosis by the time he was 23. She now blames marijuana for triggering her son’s schizophrenia.
Her assertions are not unfounded. “If brains were a DIY building project, during the tween and teen years the foundation and frame are set, but the house is getting wired and plumbed. Cannabis use can affect that process and reroute critical neural pathways,” says Johanna Nuding, founder of Casually Baked, a cannabis lifestyle brand based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “For the one percent of teens that have a genetic disposition for mental illness, early cannabis use has been shown to increase the onset and severity of mental diseases such as schizophrenia.”
Parents figure prominently in a teen’s relationship with, opinion of, and use of pot. But how can parents inform them adequately enough to create responsible cannabis users (or non-users)?
Teens risk their futures for a high—or do they?
Recent brain research into the vulnerable developmental stage that is adolescence found that a teen’s use of marijuana can contribute to higher rates of depression, mood difficulties, and lower educational accomplishments. The human brain develops until we are in our early 20s, and disruption of that neurological development can result in dire consequences. Hence, adolescence in general is seen as a high-risk period for cannabis use.
Still, there are complications. Researchers admit that it’s hard to confirm if marijuana is solely to blame for the brain abnormalities they are seeing. One complicating factor is that pot use may be accompanied by experimentation with other substances, like alcohol and tobacco. This makes it difficult to untangle all the variables and point the finger at the one substance muddling a teen’s brain.
It’s also unclear whether there is a safe level of cannabis use, if brain changes associated with marijuana use are permanent, or if, over time, the brain can recover from drug-induced changes.
And the dramatic increase in marijuana potency is another part of the equation. Highly concentrated cannabis resins contain more THC than high-potency pot. New ways of administering the drug make a difference, too. It’s hard to define a “reasonable” dose, and whether the drug is ingested via edibles, in vaporized form, or by the traditional smoking method adds more complexity.
Furthermore, marijuana’s possible health risks aside, alcohol remains a far greater risk to teens. The CDC estimated that 4,300 teens died in 2010 as a result of excessive drinking. Impaired driving, binge drinking, and blackouts are common realities for many teens. And of course, excessive alcohol use before age 21 also impairs crucial aspects of brain development.
Having the talk
The argument over whether alcohol or pot is the worst influence on teens is not very useful. What matters most is that families take the steps necessary to minimize a teen’s risk of harm—by helping them make informed choices about cannabis (and alcohol) use.
After all, if they want to try pot, they’ll find a way. According to a Yahoo News/Marist poll, pot is easy for the enterprising teen to acquire, regardless of which states have already legalized its use, either medicinally or recreationally. The poll shows that users and non-users first experimented with the drug, on average, between ages 17 and 18. And chances are good that teens are exposed to marijuana far earlier than that.
Most parents learn that if you tell your child not to do something the likelihood that they will do it increases. Which leads to a crucial question when it comes to teens and cannabis use: How should parents, cannabis users or not, talk to their teens about marijuana? The era when a simplistic “just say no” approach was considered OK is behind us. Teens deserve—and likely want—more information.
“Help the child see that smoking pot is not a ‘rebellious’ decision, but that they are making a personal choice,” says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, parent coach and co-founder of ImpactADHD, who regularly sees teens who “self-medicate.” “Whether they smoke or not, parents should set clear expectations and communicate with their kids about responsible decision-making and brain development.”
Educating beats dictating
Empowering and trusting teens to make the best decisions for their own bodies can be a major unifier between beleaguered parents and curious adolescents. When you set aside your parental “agenda,” and stay matter-of-fact during the important conversations about drugs and alcohol, your teens will begin to see that their health is their own agenda. Putting themselves in precarious positions just to spite their parents really isn’t worth the consequences.
KJ Landis, author and creator of the Superior Self series, advises parents to set specific ground rules during the conversation, like no driving while high and no alcohol mixed with pot (even if you’re 21).
“If you’ve got curious kids or older teens, they’ll want to know when they can try pot.” says Nuding. “I encourage parents to be open to this exercise with teens before they head off to college. You’d rather them learn from you or a professional instead of the frat bros during rush.”
But wait…should parents abstain too?
Parents who use pot regularly may wrestle with how to be honest about their own cannabis consumption, whether medicinal or recreational. “As an educator, I hear the doubt and worry in some parents’ voices when they tell me they want to consider cannabis for wellness, but it feels irresponsible and wrong. Many think bringing pot into their home would make them a bad parent,” says Nuding, addressing the notion that a parent is being hypocritical for using cannabis themselves, while asking their children to resist.
Landis has been completely open about her cannabis use with her two teens. “I know when to reach for natural medicines that are stronger,” says Landis. Her kids were aware that she was smoking marijuana and using cream made from the plant to help soothe intense spinal pain and slipped discs that prevented her from walking.
Landis is lucky. It’s not easy for every parent to talk about the tough stuff with their kids. According to the Yahoo/Marist poll, 28 percent have never talked to their children about marijuana. People think the biggest reasons why the conversation doesn’t happen are because parents don’t know what to say, aren’t comfortable with the topic, or don’t want to encourage use. As it turns out, not talking about pot could be far worse for your teens than opening this topic for regular discussion.
The legal consequences of pot use for teens
Even if you’ve been honest and up front with your teens about pot, it doesn’t mean you won’t have issues. Teens are, of course, erratic, full of hormones, not fully mature, and drawn to the forbidden. And most adolescents aren’t known for sharing details about their habits and activities with their parents. “Pay attention to texts, social feeds, friend groups, telephone chatter, locked bedroom doors, and above-average teen apathy,” says Nuding.
Worries about drug use are easily accompanied by concerns about what might happen to your teen if they are arrested for cannabis possession. A pot arrest can limit job opportunities and even impact college financial aid.
Furthermore, while one arrest is bad enough, it’s a later potential arrest that can tip the scales. “Prior history of pot crimes committed as a minor can often come back to haunt someone facing arrest,” says Barbara Bowden, a DUI attorney in Lakewood, Washington. “An officer could treat a pot crime as a pattern of behavior and scrutinize an individual, maybe even conduct a search with a K9 where they likely wouldn’t have before if the person didn’t have a prior history.”
Nuding suggests sharing information about the laws and consequences for marijuana possession in your state and municipality. “If you make cannabis a household topic, it loses its sparkle and allure.” That means talking about cannabis early and often (starting around age 12 is the general consensus), and sharing articles and videos about research and findings.
In Colorado, where Todd Mitchem lives with his wife and three children, recreational marijuana use is legal but teen marijuana use is down, which he considers a good sign. Mitchem is a senior government and community affairs liaison for the marijuana industry, but he’s still a parent. “In our house, we use the rule of, ‘Just not yet,’ in that they are not old enough to consume many substances, including marijuana. We never seek to terrify kids, only educate.”