Home » 3 Things I Wish More Parents – and Teens – Knew About Pot

3 Things I Wish Parents – and Teens – Knew About Pot

3 Things I Wish More Parents – and Teens – Knew About Pot

We live in California, where marijuana is now, as of Jan. 1, legal for recreational use. My four teens report that pot is already very easy to come by and that “everyone” uses it. More concerning to me: Many of my friends – fellow parents – believe that teen marijuana use is not harmful.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, the good news: Most teens don’t smoke pot or ingest edibles. That said, 41 percent of American high school seniors report having used marijuana or synthetic cannabinoids in the past year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That’s a very large minority. Do they know what they are doing? Here is what I wish all kids – and their parents – knew about pot:

Marijuana slows brain development in adolescence.

Brain development is more significant during adolescence than during any other developmental stage (except in the womb). The transition from childhood to adulthood is a critical period of brain growth, and the brain’s natural endocannabinoid system – which is affected by marijuana use – plays a very important role in this development.

The unique brain growth that we see only during adolescence is temporarily halted by marijuana use. How? Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high, binds with the brain’s cannabinoid, or CB1, receptors. This blocks their normal function.

It also makes kids really high. Teenagers have more CB1 receptors than adults do for THC to bind to, and THC also stays in the CB1 receptor for longer than it would in an adult. Neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen, author of “The Teenage Brain,” recently told Terry Gross on the NPR program “Fresh Air” that “[THC] locks on longer than in the adult brain…. For instance, if [a teen] were to get high over a weekend, the effects may [still be] there on Thursday and Friday later that week. An adult wouldn’t have that same long-term effect.”

The effect I want parents and teens to understand is this: While THC is in the CB1 receptor, it blocks the process of learning and memory and slows, or stops, adolescent brain development.

Because of this, exposure to marijuana “during adolescence can dramatically alter brain maturation and cause long-lasting neurobiological changes that ultimately affect the function and behavior of the adult brain,” according to a 2014 review of research published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience examining the long-term consequences of marijuana use during adolescence, particularly the effects on cognitive functioning, emotional behavior and the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder in adulthood. The damage is irreversible. Early marijuana use has long-lasting consequences on IQ and intelligence and is “associated with a two-fold increase in the risk of developing a psychotic disorder,” like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, according to the review.

This is not an unproven theory; we understand the neuroscience behind how and why marijuana affects an adolescent brain differently than it would an adult one. Still, 71 percent of high school seniors do not view “regular marijuana usage” to be harmful to their health, based on survey data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Most wouldn’t smoke a cigarette because they understand that smoking is unhealthy; it’s time for us to be more clear with teens that marijuana use is not a healthier choice.

Marijuana today is actually very addictive, especially for teens.

Most people think marijuana is “healthier” than alcohol or tobacco in part because they believe it isn’t addictive. But pot can be very habit-forming. Surprisingly, marijuana use is associated with a higher rate of clinically significant health problems and problematic behaviors among users, such as failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school or home, as well as dependence or addiction than alcohol among users, reports the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and HealthTwenty-one percent of adult marijuana users met diagnostic criteria for addiction, according to that survey. Studies indicate that as many as one-third of users develop a diagnosable addiction, especially with strains of marijuana that have higher THC content.

Teenagers are especially susceptible to addiction – to alcohol, to social media, and yes, to marijuana. In the same way that teens learn faster than adults do, it’s also easier for their brains to “learn” to become addicted. Learning stimulates and enhances the brain. Substances like marijuana do the same thing, but during adolescence, teen brains “build a reward circuit around that substance to a much stronger, harder, longer addiction,” Jensen told Terry Gross. “The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain,” she noted. “They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than the adult.”

Pot today is a different drug than it was a generation or two ago.

I think a lot of parents in my generation believe that marijuana isn’t harmful or addictive because it didn’t used to be. THC concentrations have skyrocketed in recent years, and growers have bred the antipsychotic properties out of today’s marijuana.

Reports differ depending on where marijuana is sourced, but studies of THC concentration in cannabis show that before 1980, concentration of THC averaged around 1.5 percent. Potency rose to about 3 percent in the early 1980s and stayed there until about 1992, when it began to rise steadily. In the last decade, samples have averaged about 11 percent THC; and currently, specific breeding techniques are yielding strains that are 27 to 33 percent THC, according to findings published in Biological Psychiatry. Experts believe that this is likely now the norm in states where recreational marijuana is legal; higher THC concentration yields a more lucrative product.

In addition, 20 years ago marijuana had higher levels of cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana. Although CBD has medicinal benefits, growers are breeding it out of marijuana intended for recreational use because it keeps users from getting as high as they would without the CBD.

Higher THC and lower CBD produces a higher high – and also a higher potential for overdose. A THC overdose won’t kill you, but it can produce hallucinations, panic attacks and extreme paranoia. And an overdose can cause a psychotic break and psychotic disorders that can be hard for a teenager to ever recover from.

All of this is to say that marijuana use is not harmless for kids today, by any stretch of the imagination. But as many kids see (and smell) the adults around them getting stoned at concerts, at trailheads before a hike, and now, in California, just walking down the street – they assume that marijuana use is harmless fun.

Given this, my husband and I have taken what is, in our neck of the woods, a controversial stance: We are so clear about our expectation that our teens not use marijuana that we drug test them. We aren’t doing this because we believe our children have or will use drugs, or because we don’t trust them to tell us if they do (no tests have ever turned up positive). We do it because it gives them a solid excuse to abstain; they can say to their friends, “My parents are so crazy about this issue that they drug test me.”

Drug testing is not the only thing we are doing, of course. We talk with our kids regularly about the risks that marijuana poses, and we try to do a lot of listening, too. We are keenly interested in helping our kids develop the skills they need to cope with stress and anxiety– so that they aren’t tempted to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Interestingly, our kids have never protested being tested, and they seem genuinely glad that we are so black and white about all this. They know that they will be making their own choices soon, when they are adults. For now, they seem happy that we are making this choice for them.

This was originally posted on US News & World Report and on MSN.com.


Additional References:
Bose, Jonaki, Sarra L. Hedden, Rachel N. Lipari, Eunice Park-Lee, Jeremy D. Porter, and Michael R. Pemberton. “Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. Published September (2016).

Caulkins, Jonathan P. “The real dangers of marijuana.” National Affairs 26 (2016): 21-24.

El Sohly, Mahmoud A., Zlatko Mehmedic, Susan Foster, Chandrani Gon, Suman Chandra, and James C. Church. “Changes in cannabis potency over the last 2 decades (1995–2014): Analysis of current data in the United States.” Biological psychiatry 79, no. 7 (2016): 613-619.

Renard, Justine, Marie-Odile Krebs, Gwenaëlle Le Pen, and Thérèse M. Jay. “Long-term consequences of adolescent cannabinoid exposure in adult psychopathology.” Frontiers in neuroscience 8 (2014).


  1. Fenway4 says:

    Excellent article. Yes, so many people seem to take a nonchalant view of marijuana. When I first learned that some states were going to legalize it, I was horrified. And there’s another big issue associated with marijuana use: stoned driving. I suspect the dangers of that are at least as bad as those of drunk driving.

    I admire the fact that you-all are drug-testing your kids. They’re getting a firm signal to stay away from pot, which is exactly what they need. I hope lots of parents read your article.

    • Nick says:

      Allright let me mingle in the discussion here.

      I live in the Netherlands, if you are not familiar with that country it is a tiny piece of land inbetween Germany and England.
      Marijuana has been semi-legal in here since about the 60s or 70s.
      It isn’t something to be terrified with but rather something to be enjoyed responsibly like alcohol.

      If somebody smokes weed once in a while it is nog going to be a problem.
      offcourse there should be an age restriction, here the minimum age for purchasing and using marijuana is 18 years but in the USA they might enforce a minumum age of 21 ?

      Also stoned driving is indeed just as dangerously as drunk driving but if lawenforcement impose penaltys for doing so ( just like over here ) there will be similar situations as with drunk driving as in who in their right mind whants to lose their drivers license over a joint.

      I have used weed from well below the minimum age up until 23 years of age but quit due to persuing an international career.
      It did not make me a brainless zombie but I certainly don’t encourage it.

      All I whant to say is don’t freak out about it but rather inform young people about it and make sure that if they use it they can do so controlled under your supervision so as to prevent trouble and
      nuisances in the streets and to make sure you can step in once things get out of line.

      weed is about as addictive as anything else and JUST LIKE WITH EVERYTHING ELSE be it sugar, alcohol, sunbathing it should be enjoyed RESPONSIVELY and NOT TOO MUCH.

      • Fenway4 says:

        From a WebMD article:

        Although some say marijuana is just as safe as, or even safer than alcohol, others argue that pot causes a lot more harm than just a serious buzz. . . .

        “I don’t think we can definitively say it is safe,” says Jeanette Marie Tetrault, MD, FACP. She’s an assistant professor of medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine.

        Here’s a quote from another article, which states that even occasional use can be dangerous:

        Young people who occasionally smoke marijuana may be rewiring their brains, with their pot use causing structural changes to brain regions related to motivation, emotion and reward, a small study says.

        Recreational pot use by a small group of young adults caused significant changes to the shape and density of both the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain involved in reward and addiction, and the amygdala, which helps process emotion and form long-term memories, the study authors reported.

        These changes show that pot users’ brains adapt to even low-level marijuana exposure, potentially making a person more vulnerable to drug addiction or changing their thought processes and emotions in unknown ways, the researchers said.

  2. kerrie says:

    Christine, really thoughtful and inspiring article. It would be fascinating if you were able to share how your (and your husband’s) strong stand on marijuana compares with the other boundaries you set for your kids (like alcohol use, or internet restrictions). What consequences have you discussed if your kids either decided not to comply with the drug testing, or tested positive. Thanks

    • Christine Carter says:

      We have a lot of structure for sure. We use a Circle device so that we don’t have to argue with them about screen time — it just tracks all their screen time on all their devices and then shuts them down when they hit their time limit. There is a lot of belly aching, but they also feel better when they don’t feel addicted and they do thank us for that. If the kids didn’t comply with the drug testing? They don’t have a choice. They still live with us. We won’t do it once they leave for college and are making their own choices.

  3. Andrew says:

    As a psychotherapist, I don’t think its possible to drug test one’s non-using children and have a trusting relationship with them. Drug testing should only occur when there has been a history of significant use/abuse. Trust is way more important in one’s relationships than attempting to control one’s children or one’s fears about drugs. The odds are these children being unnecessary drug-tested by their parents will experiment more heavily once away from the home than most. Working with young people, I see JUUL use as a much more dangerous issue in high school and college and it is way more of a threat to one’s health, as it is the foundation of a tobacco addiction. Any parent should ask their children about this latest attempt by big tobacco to addict young people. Additionally, the study highlighted here has been highly scrutinized and one can see for themselves by searching marijuana and schizophrenia to see that this psychosis outcome is very rare and impacts only those with a genetic history of schizophrenia. There is no cause and effect data to know if they would become schizophrenic, if they had not used. One could also surmise that one prone to schizophrenia may be more prone to psychedelics as a means of self-medicating. Be careful to believe overly negative marijuana articles during this period of US history, as alcohol, big pharmacology and big tobacco do not want marijuana to be legalized and actively seed studies and articles to scare voters. Legalizing marijuana has proven to help state funding without increasing users on a material level, hurts the drug cartels and curbs the abuse of minorities by our penal system. Marijuana is a drug and people should be mindful about using it. However, it also has proven medicinal qualities- anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea- lauded by cancer survivors, chronic pain and auto-immune sufferers. What exactly is the medical benefit of legal ethanol (alcohol) or tobacco and where are the articles about that question? Alcohol kills 88,000 people every year. Opioids kills 64,000 and tobacco kills 480,000 annually. All of these legal substances are highly physically addictive, whereas marijuana is psychologically addictive and thus is much easier to quit. The fact is marijuana is exceedingly benign next to these legal substances and we won’t know more about it’s negative risks and positive benefits until there can be more testing done. Not surprisingly, testing has proven difficult with the US government’s intentional Schedule I classification, putting it into the most dangerous category along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy and worse than Schedule II, which includes a much more dangerous and addictive illegal drug in methamphetamine. This classification makes it exceedingly difficult for laboratories to obtain approval for testing. This is similar to the ludicrous ban congress has on the CDC for research on gun violence. Anyone witnessing politics in 2018 should question such a harsh classification for marijuana and also appreciate the impact of lobbyists and big money on our lives.

  4. Andy says:

    Did I do something incorrectly or did my comment questioning points in this article get deleted?

    • Christine Carter says:

      We did not delete it — I’ll make sure it isn’t waiting for approval in the spam filter. We welcome alternate views!

      • Andy Logan says:

        Thanks! I didn’t want to sign in with FB, as it wanted all my contacts, so chose the guest method and didn’t know if it failed as my alternative comment was there and then it was gone.

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