Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, and it’s quickly becoming legal to use all over the country. It’s easy to get, which makes it popular among teens looking to experiment with drugs. Marijuana is growing as a culturally accepted recreational substance in the United States, with more states voting to legalize its recreational and medicinal use in 2020. Most notably, New Jersey legalized recreational use, which some believe will open up more states in the northeast to legalize the drug.

Marijuana is already highly available, even where it’s illegal. If it comes to be commonly accepted and legal like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, how could that affect its relationship with teens? Adolescent substance use is more critical of an issue than drug use among adults. Though marijuana legalization is a debated issue, most people agree that teens and young adults under 21 shouldn’t have access to it. However, teen marijuana use is common and may continue to grow.

How common is marijuana use among teens, and what are the consequences of smoking weed on the teen brain?

Marijuana Use Statistics

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 1 in 8 teens between the ages of 12 to 17 used marijuana within the past year of the survey, which accounts for about 12 percent of the age group in the U.S. That means about 3.1 million teens used marijuana that year. Even more young adults between 18 and 25 used the drug, with around 11.8 million reporting past-year marijuana use.

Marijuana was used by 43.5 million people that were 12 years old or older. There was also an increase in the percentage of people that used marijuana in 2018 as compared to the years between 2002 and 2017.

Less than 31% believe weekly marijuana use comes with great risk. In 2018, around 1.3 million teens between 12 and 17 used marijuana for the first time. Around 681,000 teens had a substance use disorder related to illicit drugs in 2018.

Is Marijuana Addictive?

Any drug that can create a euphoric feeling can become addictive. Marijuana can be habit-forming in some people, but it’s not addictive in the same way other drugs are. People experience marijuana differently, and not everyone feels a sense of euphoria. It isn’t known to cause chemical dependence to the same degree as other illicit drugs, alcohol, or even nicotine. However, it can cause your brain to adapt by reducing the production of its own chemicals that bind to the endocannabinoid receptors that marijuana interacts with.

Some people report symptoms like irritability, sleep problems, and decreased appetite. You may also experience cravings when you try to quit. Marijuana addiction develops when you continue using the drug despite the consequences in your life.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30% of people that use marijuana develop a marijuana use disorder at some level. And about 4 million people met the criteria for a marijuana use disorder. Teens may experience different effects than adults when they take marijuana. Adolescent brains aren’t finished developing, and the frequent introduction of a psychoactive chemical may have more lasting effects on adolescents.

How Does Marijuana Use Affect Teens

Marijuana can affect your brain and body in a number of ways, and it can have a particular effect on adolescent brains. Long-term use can also lead to long-lasting effects on your physical and psychological health. Chronic marijuana use can cause some physical issues, especially if it’s smoked. Smoking weed can cause respiratory issues, including lung and breathing problems. Though marijuana hasn’t shown to be as harmful as tobacco cigarettes and research hasn’t discovered a strong link to lung cancer. Long-term marijuana use could also increase your heart rate, which may increase your risk of heart-related issues.

Illicit marijuana use could also expose you to other harmful chemicals and additives that could threaten your health. Synthetic cannabinoids, often sold as regular weed or synthetic weed, can cause deadly side effects. It can cause issues like a rapid heart rate, vomiting, suicidal thoughts and actions, and other issues.

Marijuana could have a damaging effect when it comes to adolescent psychology and cognition. A 2014 study found that adolescents that use marijuana excessively could experience changes in brain structure that can affect behavior and cognition. Marijuana could impair the developing brain by inhibiting mental performance, slowed brain development, and changes in brain function.

Marijuana could also increase your risk of psychosis, especially in people that have other mental health issues like schizophrenia.

Is Marijuana A Gateway Drug?

The gateway drug theory of marijuana says that using the drug can lead to the use of more dangerous illicit drugs. The theory is controversial and conflicting studies have emerged. According to the CDC, the majority of people that use marijuana do not go on to use harder drugs. NIDA reports that the data from the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders shows that people that participated in a study where they reported using marijuana were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder later.

A study on rats found that cannabis could increase the reactivity of dopamine reward centers in the brain. Drugs like cocaine and opioids often influence dopamine in the brain, which contributes to their rewarding, euphoric effects. If the same is true in humans, it could mean that marijuana “primes” the brain for later drug use.

There are many different factors in the development of substance use problems and addiction. Studies that illicit drug users are likely to have used marijuana in the past may not definitively identify that marijuana leads to the use of harder drugs. It could be that people who have used marijuana use other drugs and have similar risk factors. People that use marijuana may have genetic factors that also make them more likely to use other drugs. NIDA points out that the sensitizing effect marijuana may have in the brain may also be found in alcohol and nicotine.

Illicit marijuana use may be related to behavioral issues that don’t apply to medicinal or legal marijuana use.

Does Marijuana Use Mean A Teen Will Use Other Drugs?

Since the gateway effect comes with conflicting evidence, should parents and guardians be worried that teen marijuana use will lead to worse drug problems?

Drug use can be caused by environmental and developmental factors that have nothing to do with marijuana. Still, underaged, illicit marijuana use may be a warning sign that teens could also be exposed to other drugs in the future, even if marijuana doesn’t cause a gateway effect. Other factors to look out for are high drug availability at school, parental drug or alcohol use, permissive drug policies at school, and drug use among peers. Genetics plays a big role in substance use problems too. If a teen’s parents or grandparents struggled with substance use problems, teens are more likely to have an issue with substance misuse.

However, a teen that might experience some of these factors isn’t guaranteed to develop a substance use disorder. According to NIDA, there are also protective factors that may decrease the likelihood of a teen developing a substance use disorder. Parental monitoring, academic competence among peers, and anti-drug use policies among peers.

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