In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis following the passage of Amendment 64 and Initiative 502. Twenty-two other states, Washington, D.C., and Guam would act to legalize the drug in the following decade as public support for legalization rose rapidly—additional states allow the use of cannabis for “medical” purposes although the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to list cannabis as an illegal schedule I substance “due to its high potential for abuse, which is attributable in large part to the psychoactive effects of THC, and the absence of a currently accepted medical use of the plant in the United States.”
As a result of the continuing normalization of cannabis use, many Americans—including teenagers—perceive little or no risk in using it. Although marijuana use is only legal for people 21 and older, a significant number of adolescents use cannabis.
The percentage of adolescents reporting substance use in 2022 largely “held steady” after significantly declining in 2021, according to the latest results from the Monitoring the Future survey of substance use behaviors and related attitudes among eighth, 10th, and 12th graders in the United States.
Sadly, “holding steady” here means that more than eight percent of eighth graders, almost twenty percent of 10th graders, and nearly a third of 12th graders reported cannabis use in the past year. So it’s not really good news. The reported decrease in teenage use for almost all psychoactive substances from 2020 to 2021 may have been the result of COVID-19 lockdowns and the resulting inability to acquire drugs and alcohol.
Approximately a tenth of cannabis users get addicted to the drug. Cannabis use disorder (CUD) is common in the United States, is often associated with other substance use disorders, behavioral problems, and disability, and goes largely untreated, according to a 2016 study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health.
It’s Not Your Daddy’s Weed
The health risks connected with cannabis use are real, notwithstanding years of promoting it as a medicinal remedy. Researchers know that prolonged and heavy cannabis use can alter brain circuitry—especially since the commercial products now sold in many places are far more potent than the “pot” Boomers smoked in the 1970s.
“Though the legal purchase age is 21 in Colorado and Washington, parents, educators, and physicians say youths are easily getting hold of edibles infused with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component that causes a high and concentrates such as ‘shatter,’ a brittle, honey-colored substance that is heated and then inhaled through a special device,” reported Jennifer Oldham in the Washington Post in 2019.
Each poses serious risks to the physical and mental health of adolescents.“Underage kids have unbelievable access to nuclear-strength weed,” Andrew Brandt, a software executive whose son got hooked while in high school told the Post.
Mental Health Risks
Unfortunately, addiction is not the only risk. There is increasing evidence linking cannabis use to earlier onset of psychosis in people with genetic risk factors for psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, as well as worse symptoms in people who already have these conditions. Although less consistent, there is also evidence linking cannabis use to other mental illnesses and self-harm, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Young men with cannabis (marijuana) use disorder have an increased risk of developing schizophrenia, according to a new study led by researchers at the Mental Health Services in the Capital Region of Denmark and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health. The study, published in Psychological Medicine, analyzed detailed health records data spanning five decades and representing more than six million people in Denmark to estimate the fraction of schizophrenia cases that could be attributed to cannabis use disorder on the population level.
The researchers concluded that “young males might be particularly susceptible to the effects of cannabis on schizophrenia. At a population level, assuming causality, one-fifth of cases of schizophrenia among young males might be prevented by averting CUD. Results highlight the importance of early detection and treatment of CUD and policy decisions regarding cannabis use and access, particularly for 16–25-year-olds.”
“The entanglement of substance use disorders and mental illnesses is a major public health issue, requiring urgent action and support for people who need it,” said NIDA director and study coauthor Nora Volkow, MD. “As access to potent cannabis products continues to expand, it is crucial that we also expand prevention, screening, and treatment for people who may experience mental illnesses associated with cannabis use. The findings from this study are one step in that direction and can help inform decisions that health care providers may make in caring for patients, as well as decisions that individuals may make about their own cannabis use.”
Teen drug use, including alcohol and cannabis combined with mental health conditions, has been a public health concern for decades. Avanti Behavioral Health works with teens and young adults who struggle with mental health and substance use disorders.
We believe that recovery from addiction is a process that should involve the entire immediate family. We have developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling. For more information about our intensive outpatient program and family programming call us at (720) 821-5893.