On Tuesday, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released data from its annual Monitoring the Future survey of drug use and attitudes among American teens. I’m encouraged that the survey showed a decline in illicit drug use among teenagers again this year. We’ve not seen usage rates this low since the 1990s. The overall trends are moving in the right direction. However, I’m concerned that marijuana use still remains high among teenagers and that this prevalence seems to correlate with the perception that using marijuana doesn’t have real risks.
In the study, NIDA found that marijuana is by far the most widely-used drug among teenagers. In fact, marijuana is now more popular among teens than tobacco or e-cigarettes. Nearly one in four 10th graders report that they used marijuana in the past year and almost 6 percent of 12th graders reported that they used it daily or almost daily.
The Monitoring the Future survey reflects our experience at Caron, marijuana use is prevalent and attitudes surrounding the drug are alarming - 92 percent of teens seeking treatment at Caron list marijuana as a drug of choice, and 98 percent of those patients use it in conjunction with other drugs. The issue of marijuana is all the more critical as the country reached a turning point this year – the majority of states now have either decriminalized or legalized marijuana to some degree.
These legal changes coincide with a shift in how we characterize marijuana use in the media, schools, among providers prescribing marijuana for uses not yet researched and at home. Inconsistent messages and the perception that “marijuana use isn’t that bad” normalizes the drug and can create a lower perceived risk that is disconnected from reality. While the Monitoring the Future survey shows an overall decline in adolescent drug use, it also shows that we have lost ground when communicating the risks associated with marijuana.
Research shows that marijuana use is not without risk. Marijuana directly affects parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, learning, attention and reaction time. Although research results on this topic are somewhat mixed, studies associate regular marijuana use during adolescence with an average loss of eight IQ points. The same effect is not found for adults, suggesting the impact is greater on young users with developing brains. Other risks include marijuana’s impact on drivers, which research has shown includes lane weaving, poor reaction time and altered attention.
Also dangerous is the misconception that because marijuana is a plant and used for medicinal purposes, or because it is legal for recreational use in some places, it is not as harmful as other drugs like alcohol or tobacco. Yet, we still don’t know the extent of the long-term effects that marijuana use has on the brain – findings remain inconsistent and indicative of the need for more research and longitudinal studies. What’s more, the proliferation of unregulated marijuana increases the risk of stronger and synthetic cannabinoids contaminated by harmful substances.
For these reasons, I call on parents, caregivers, doctors, media and legislators to end the normalization of marijuana use that puts our teens at risk. States evaluating the risks associated with marijuana should know that current data suggests a strong concentration of risk in those under 25. That is why Caron Treatment Centers strongly recommends that, even in this tide of legalization, recreational marijuana use should remain illegal for those under 25 to prevent its potentially detrimental effects on brain development. This would follow the precedent of limiting the availability and marketing of tobacco and alcohol to young adults.
It is also critical that we resist the temptation to fall back on the “middle step” of mere decriminalization. While Caron does not support decriminalization or legalization, for those states contemplating such legislation, it is important to consider that full legalization would allow for the drug to be regulated and taxed; decriminalization leaves in place the existing criminal monopoly over unregulated drugs, increasing the risk to users. This “softer” approach is actually the worst of both worlds. Legalization presents an opportunity to regulate marijuana for quality control and to provide tax revenue. Money generated from taxation and sales should be used to fund additional research, education, prevention and treatment efforts for those struggling with substance abuse.
At Caron, we will continue our efforts to educate families, communities and providers about prevention, early detection and effective treatment options for substance use and abuse as we work to reduce the harmful stigmatization of addiction. We must take advantage of this opportunity to shape the policies and conversations surrounding marijuana and substance abuse to benefit the health of our children and future generations.
To learn more about Caron’s position on marijuana, click here.
To learn more about perceptions and risks of marijuana use in teens, read NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study at drugabuse.gov.
 M. H. Meier et al., “Persistent Cannabis Users Show Neuropsychological Decline from Childhood to Midlife,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 40 (August 27, 2012), doi:10.1073/pnas.1206820109.
 “Drugged Driving,” Nora’s Blog, June 2016, accessed December 13, 2016, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/drugged-driving#references.