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Marijuana and the Young Adult’s Brain

With marijuana now legalized for recreational and/or medicinal use in 30 states and counting, societal attitudes are shifting and it’s becoming more widely accepted… which means the perception of its dangers are decreasing as well. It’s easier to get than ever, with or without a legal prescription card and in some cases people are even using it unabashedly in public. Movies and TV glorify and normalize marijuana use and these days it carries very little stigma or threat. According to NIDA, 71 percent of seniors in high school don’t think regularly smoking pot is harmful. Many cite that because it’s “natural” it mustn’t be dangerous. However cocaine and heroin are derived from plants as well and few would argue the clear dangers of abusing those drugs. So is marijuana safe for teens?

Smoking a little weed once in a while may seem innocuous, but the reality is that the brain is still in a formative state until the early twenties and any substance brought into the mix has the potential to interfere with its long term development. Just like introducing alcohol to the “under construction” brain, marijuana can influence how this malleable organ reacts and grows. It isn’t only about the immediate effects or how someone acts when they’re high on the drug, it’s also about how marijuana can disrupt normal functioning and the development process.

THC and Cannabinoid Receptors

Marijuana clearly shows promise for treating a variety of medical conditions in adults with research indicating that the chemical component cannabidiol - which doesn’t produce the mind-altering effects we associate with the drug - is responsible for the benefits. However, the signature high most people connect to marijuana is from the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is not without its risks, particularly for teens and young adults.

THC enters the bloodstream through the lungs or stomach (depending on how marijuana is consumed) and makes its way to the brain where it attaches to specific cannabinoid receptors on the cells. These receptors are normally activated by naturally occuring chemicals in the body which THC mimics. Certain parts of the brain are more highly concentrated with these receptors, including those that regulate pleasure, memory, concentration, time perception and coordination. When THC attaches to the cannabinoid receptors it activates the endocannabinoid system -- a key player in cognition, neurodevelopment, emotional control and stress response. What it may also do in a still-developing brain is decrease normal cellular activity in the endocannabinoid system and change the brain with long-term effects.

As with other substances, the younger one is when marijuana use begins, the greater the risk of developmental damage. Studies have linked early marijuana use (beginning before the age of 16) with poor executive function, showing those who begin moderate to heavy use at a young age struggle with planning, abstract thinking, flexibility and impulse control. The risks are highest for those start younger but long-term damage can occur anytime chemical interfere with brain formation. The frontal cortex -- critical to decision-making, judgement and personality formation -- is one of the last areas to develop.

Longitudinal studies are still in progress and many questions about the long-term effects of marijuana use are still unanswered. But from our perspective it’s clear that it’s best for brain development to eliminate THC and other illicit substances from the picture.

Talking with Teens About Marijuana

Prevention of substance abuse - whether marijuana or any other drug - begins with helping kids feel happy, valued, and nurtured. Children who feel secure and well-adjusted in their home life are far less likely to self-medicate in response to daily life stressors and the pressures of being a teenager. Step one in opening up a dialogue about the dangers of marijuana use is creating an environment where kids feel safe to admit their fears and ask for help with the pressures they’re facing.

More often than not, habitual use of marijuana (or alcohol and other chemical substances) stems from emotional wounds or lack of feeling connected to others in a meaningful way. Numbing the pain creates a false sense of peace as it relieves anxiety and worry. Going back to the role of media and societal attitudes, marijuana seems like “not that big of a deal,” especially in comparison to other “hard core” substances like heroin, cocaine or crystal meth. It’s even easier to become dependent on a drug when you’ve been convinced it’s harmless and everyone else is doing it anyway. Kids need real information about how what they put in their bodies will impact them in the long run.

Take time to truly connect with your kids and the teens you care about in your life. Have real, inquisitive conversations with them. Ask them about their day and listen when they share their hopes, dreams, fears and worries. Every generation has a different experience of being a teen and while angst and peer pressure are par for the course, today’s young adults are living in a world of social media and superficial imagery that can be difficult for those of who didn’t grow up with these things to understand. The best way to help then navigate their challenges is to show them you are there to support them.

Peaks Recovery Centers: Rehab and recovery for teens and young adults

If someone in your life is struggling with drug abuse or addiction, Peaks Recovery Centers can help. We are a long-term recovery center dedicated to helping young people rediscover the joy of living through age-specific, gender-specific treatment. Call us at 888-506-9818 today to find out more.

Sources:

https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/marijuana

http://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/11/marijuana-brain.aspx