Contra Costa Men's Center

eNews Fall, 2012

Marijuana: To use, or not to use, that is the question.

Pot use is increasing among teens and young adults, who typically argue that it is a natural drug and does no harm to our brains or bodies. They point to the hypocrisy of their parents and other adults who drink alcohol yet warn of the dangers of marijuana. What are the facts about using marijuana? How should parents handle their child's experimentation with and use of pot?


  1. *Heavy marijuana use among teens -- defined as smoking 20 times or    

  more in the past month -- is up 80 percent among U.S. teens since 2008.

* Teen boys are leading the increases in marijuana use. 42% said in 2011

  that they had smoked in the past year, a 24% increase from 2008.

  (Data from over 3,300 teens nationally in grades 9-12 in a study by the

  Partnership at and MetLife Foundation in May, 2012)

Parents have reason to be concerned. Adding to their worry, that same study reports that there has been a considerable decline in the percentage of teens that perceive there is a great risk associated with pot use. So, the authors conclude, they are smoking more and worrying about it less.

Yet adolescents and young adults assert with complete certainty that

marijuana is a natural drug and does no harm to our brains or bodies.


THC is the active ingredient in pot. In 1992 scientists first identified a chemical similar to THC that is produced naturally in the human body. These chemicals, the endocannabinoids, are part of a neurotransmitter system in the brain.

So teens and young adults are half right. Pot is a naturally occurring chemical in the body.

It is the second part of their assertion, that pot does no harm, that is the problem. Until recently there was little hard evidence to dispute that contention.

However, a study published in August in the Proceedings of the National

Academy of Sciences is cause for concern. It tracked marijuana use from age 13 to 38, and found evidence that people who began smoking marijuana as teenagers and continued to use it heavily for decades showed a significant decrease in IQ. For people who used pot regularly starting as a teen, there was an 8-point drop in IQ from the time they were 13 years old. This compares to no change in those who did not use marijuana at all or started using it only as adults.



The key word is excess. Using pot gives our brains a jolt -- that's what makes it desirable and causes one to experience a "high." The danger comes when pot is used regularly. It produces so much activation of the endocannabinoid nerve receptors that, eventually, they can overload the sites that receive their signals.

When the brain is flooded, it goes into self-protect mode. How? Nerve cells will try to stop the flooding, first by sucking receptor sites back int the cells and subsequently by dismantling them. Our brain’s self-protective action when we are on marijuana then profoundly impacts us once the high wears off. When we come down, we now find it harder to find interest in the routines of daily life because we now have fewer receptor sites available for the endocannabinoids to activate. Everyday life can feel blah or depressing, which leads to a desire to get high again. This creates the cycle of overuse.

Why is this of particular concern with younger people?

1. Danger of getting hooked on it. The rates of addiction increase the earlier one has started using marijuana. Whereas rates of cannabis dependence are 9% for long-term marijuana users, the percentage increases to 17% among those who start young (National Institute of Drug Abuse: Info Facts, Nov. 2010)

2. Hindering brain development. Our brains continue to mature until at least the mid 20s, so adolescence and young adulthood are critical times of brain development. Our brains have two periods of high production of neurons and synapses: from fetus to 18 months and another period peaking at age 11 in girls and age 12 in boys. After these peaks, the brain goes through a pruning process in which the number of neurons is reduced. During this second phase of pruning -- which usually occurs after puberty -- if there is constant stimulation in the frontal cortex, such as by frequent use of marijuana, the brain can’t go through this pruning process and our growth is stunted.

How can this process stunt the brain's development?

It slows the normal progression of cognitive development in the frontal

lobes, such as the executive functions of abstraction, sequencing,

prioritizing, planning and judgment.

It slows the process of learning to evaluate emotions through the filter of our cognition rather than the more primitive fight or flight mechanism from the brain's emotional response center, the amygdala.

So, for example, anyone struggling with organizational skills or having

difficulty managing their anger will find those tasks that much harder with regular marijuana use.



2. DO HEAR THEM OUT ABOUT THEIR UNDERSTANDING AND OPINIONS: As with any issue with teens and young adults, if they don't feel heard and understood for their viewpoints, they won't be open to hearing yours. Instead, a power struggle will be the likely result.

3. IF THEY DISPUTE THE INFORMATION YOU HAVE PRESENTED, INVITE THEM TO DO MORE RESEARCH THEMSELVES:  While they won't always be open to the information and may not agree, sometimes they truly don't know the facts. Tell them how you feel about the facts.

4. IF THEY ARE ACTIVELY USING POT, AND ARE WILLING TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT THAT, APPRECIATE THEM FIRST FOR THEIR HONESTY; THEN LISTEN CAREFULLY FOR WHAT THEY GET OUT OF USING: Sometimes it's primarily a social thing because everyone is doing it and they want to belong. Sometimes they just like experiencing the high.

But other times it can be a way of coping with deeper problems such as:

- depression (wanting the high to relieve them of their sadness)

- boredom or lack of meaning and direction in their lives

- anxiety (especially when facing the heavy stress of grades and college

   admittance as well as social acceptance).

You may learn that pot is not so much the problem as the attempt to solve a bigger problem, and you can then help them get to the root of the distress.

5. DECIDE HOW MUCH YOU ARE WILLING TO SHARE ABOUT YOUR OWN HISTORIES OF USING DRUGS: This is a tricky issue, and there is no one right approach. Some parents are very open about their own experimentation, while others are very circumspect. In general, we recommend, whichever approach you take, to be conscious of the impact it has on your child. If in doubt, we recommend erring on the side of less personal disclosure rather than more.

6. BE CLEAR WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO DO: If you don't want them to use and expect them not to, be very clear about that. Express your concerns and set the rules and consequences without making threats and being angry with them.

7. TELL THEM WHAT YOU WILL DO TO SUPPORT THEIR EFFORTS TO ABSTAIN, ESPECIALLY IF THEY FEEL PRESSURE FROM PEERS TO PARTICIPATE: Role play how they will handle peer pressure at parties or just hanging out with friends.

8. IF YOU SEE EVIDENCE OF DEEPER PROBLEMS, TELL THEM WHAT YOU SEE AND TALK WITH THEM ABOUT HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT THEM TO ADDRESS THOSE PROBLEMS: While they may not want your help, they may need it, so don't shy away just because they push back.

9. IF NEEDED, GET PROFESSIONAL HELP, EITHER FOR THE EVIDENCE OF A DEPENDENCE ON POT OR FOR DEEPER ISSUES OF DEPRESSION, BOREDOM, ANXIETY AND STRESS: As parents we are not equipped to solve all of our children's problems, but we can help them get the resources you and they need to alleviate the problems.

10. FINALLY, TALK WITH OTHER PARENTS TO BE AWARE OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE COMMUNITY AND TO GET MUTUAL SUPPORT: It can be scary to grapple with these issue alone, so sharing with other parents can be a great source of knowledge, advice and comfort.


Timmen Cermak, M.D., "Marijuana, What's a Parent To Believe," 2003,

  Kindle Edition, 2011

Partnership at (The Partnership Attitude Tracking Study)

New York Times Online, August 27, 2012;

Reform Judaism Magazine, "Medical Ethics: The Morality of Marijuana,"

  Summer 2012

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