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With the legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois on January 1, parents, educators and pediatricians alike are faced with a renewed challenge of guiding teens to make healthy choices about marijuana use. 

According to Dr. Kathy Shepherd, although the new law in Illinois doesn’t target the adolescent population, it nonetheless creates an environment in which marijuana is increasingly seen as acceptable, safe and therapeutic. This makes it more important now than ever for parents to open up the lines of communication with their kids regarding risky marijuana use. “The message that society is giving is that it’s harmless and recreational. I don’t think it’s that benign, and it’s definitely not good for kids’ development. We know marijuana harms developing brains and causes memory loss,” says Dr. Shepherd.

The more parents know, says Dr. Shepherd, the better equipped we are to talk to our kids about marijuana use.

Following are 3 facts every parent of teens should know: 

  1. 1. Marijuana today is not the same product as it was in your youth. The concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive substance in the marijuana plant, has increased considerably, from approximately 4% in the early 1980s to upward of 12% in 2012, increasing the risk of adverse effects and the potential for addiction.
  2. Marijuana negatively affects teen health: Numerous published studies have shown the potential negative consequences of short- and long-term use of recreational marijuana in teens. These consequences include impaired short-term memory and decreased concentration, attention span and problem-solving skills, all of which interfere with learning. Alterations in motor control, coordination, judgment, reaction time, and tracking ability have also been documented. These effects may contribute to unintentional deaths and injuries among adolescents, especially those who drive after using marijuana. There are also negative health effects on lung function associated with smoking marijuana, as well as longitudinal studies linking marijuana use with higher rates of mental health disorders, such as depression and psychosis.
  3. The adolescent brain is particularly sensitive to marijuana use: The adolescent brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex areas that control judgment and decision-making, is not fully developed until the early 20s, raising questions about how any substance use may affect the developing brain. A major study has shown that long-term marijuana use initiated in adolescence has negative effects on intellectual function and that the deficits in cognitive areas, such as executive function and processing speed, did not recover by adulthood, even when cannabis use was discontinued.

As pediatricians, we recognize that the office setting provides an excellent opportunity for education and counseling to prevent marijuana use as well as to implement brief interventions and referrals if needed. Starting at age 12, we begin screening patients with a questionnaire that asks about marijuana and drug use. While we recognize the results are only as good as the kids are honest, we often see teens open up about marijuana use because they know their parents aren’t looking over their shoulders at the time of their appointment. “We do our best to make teens feel comfortable filling it out,” says Dr. Shepherd. This screening opens up the conversation so that we as pediatricians can offer guidance and facts about marijuana use that teens might not have considered.

Keep communication lines open

As parents, Dr. Shepherd says it’s important to address marijuana use the way we broach many difficult subjects with our teens: keep the lines of communication open and keep the conversation casual. 

“Wait for a natural opening to come up, such as seeing an ad for a dispensary while in the car. Then, you can bring up some of the adverse effects marijuana has on teens, such as impaired memory, reduced attention span, adverse effects on problem solving skills and judgement.” 

Dr. Shepherd advises doing your best to avoid being “preachy” with teens because they’ll stop listening. “Don’t lecture them because they will shut down, but if you ask them their opinions, they’ll open dialogue.” 

Try asking them questions, like: 

  • What do you know about marijuana use among your classmates? 
  • What will you do if someone offers you to try it at a party?
  • What will you say when you’re offered marijuana because most likely you will be exposed to it?
  • What would you do if your ride ends up getting high?

Dr. Shepherd says, “Experimentation is common, but that doesn’t mean it should be condoned or trivialized. It’s important to delay, delay and delay. Someone who tries marijuana at age 12 is so much worse off than someone who tries it at 20.”

When it comes to talking to teens who you suspect use marijuana, again, focus on keeping the lines of communication open. Dr. Shepherd says, “If you suspect your teen is using marijuana, try to stay calm. Even though you’re upset and angry, your teen will probably shut down if you start an angry, punishing conversation. You want them to open up about why they’re using it and when. Let them know why you’re concerned.” 

And of course, as your pediatrician, we can help equip you with information or talk to your teen on the effects of marijuana on an adolescent brain.