Over the last decade, there have been numerous reports noting a decreasing perception of the risks of marijuana use for children and teens. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 45 percent of all U.S. teens will have tried marijuana at least once by the time they graduate high school.
This decreasing perception of risks by youth may be due in part to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use for adults over the age of 21 in many parts of the U.S. However, marijuana is still considered federally illegal, the shift in state-by-state legalization has increased accessibility to marijuana.
Although marijuana use may be considered harmless by some, regular use can negatively impact the bodies, minds and personal lives of children and teens.
Here, Codi Peterson, a pharmacist in the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Hospital, answers parents’ frequently asked questions about marijuana, its effects and how to help kids quit.
What is marijuana?
Marijuana is the dried flowers and leaves from the cannabis sativa plant. Growing cannabis for food and fiber dates back over ten thousand years, and the earliest evidence of humans smoking marijuana dates back to nearly three thousand years ago.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana — it is what makes people feel “high.” The amount of THC in marijuana and marijuana products has greatly increased over the years, sometimes reaching above 30% of its total dry weight. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, any cannabis plant that exceeds 0.3% THC is considered marijuana. Any plant with less than 0.3% THC is considered hemp.
Interestingly, the plants known as marijuana and plants known as hemp are actually the same species of plant — cannabis sativa — but produce different compounds. Visually, hemp and marijuana can look identical, but according to the federal government, only hemp can be grown legally (with a license).
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is another common psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant. But unlike THC, cannabidiol is non-intoxicating and not federally illegal. There is even an FDA-approved CBD-based medication for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy.
What are the common ways to consume marijuana?
Marijuana can be consumed many ways, but most commonly it is finely ground and then rolled and smoked like a cigarette (these are colloquially called joints or doobies) or put in hollowed-out cigars (also called blunts), pipes (or bowls), or water pipes (sometimes called bongs). Some people also mix it into food or gummies (called edibles) or brew it as tea.
Recently, it has become increasingly popular for people to inhale concentrated marijuana extracts using a vaporizer (called vaping). Another new and trending way to consume is to use marijuana concentrate, which is called dabbing. This method of consuming requires a special device called a dab rig or dab pen, which heats the cannabis rapidly for inhalation. Many of these extracts used vaping and dabbing are highly concentrated, sometimes exceeding 80% THC. Perhaps more concerning for parents is their use is very discreet, with many products near odorless and a device that can easily be fit into a pocket.
What short-term effects can marijuana cause for young people?
Many young people and adults may use marijuana to feel a sense of euphoria and escape from their typical day-to-day life. There may be something in their lives that they are trying to avoid like stress from school or work; depression or anxiety; feeling overwhelmed by national and global events; relationship issues; and more.
However, marijuana can also cause unwanted side effects, including:
- Trouble thinking and problem solving.
- Problems with memory and learning.
- Impaired balance and coordination.
- Distorted perception of time.
These side effects are temporary, but they can make it dangerous to do things like drive. People also might notice other short-term side effects of using marijuana, such as:
- Having an increased appetite.
- Excessively laughing and giggling.
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
- Experiencing tiredness or drowsiness.
- Having a lack of motivation to accomplish daily tasks.
What long-term effects can marijuana cause for young people?
While the use of marijuana as an adult may not have significant negative effects, children and teens who use marijuana regularly may start to see long-term effects on their health in the following ways:
Changes in the brain
When someone smokes marijuana, THC goes from the lungs into the bloodstream very rapidly. From there, it ends up in the brain and other organs where it influences numerous bodily functions.
The marijuana “high” results from THC’s effects on the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS plays an essential role around the body and in the central nervous system. The endocannabinoid system is a regulatory system that helps maintain balance (homeostasis) in our bodies; it is made up of a complex network of endocannabinoid signals and cannabinoid receptors. THC, a plant-derived cannabinoid, is known to interact with these receptors and impact many functions of the brain like thinking, memory, coordination, mood, energy and concentration.
Especially with young people, whose brains are still developing, frequent marijuana use can alter the natural development of the endocannabinoid system. When the THC is regularly stimulating the child or teen’s brain, it can negatively impact the part of a child’s brain that is growing, developing and becoming resilient. It can affect a child or teen’s ability to remember, multitask and pay attention.
Some studies suggest that using a lot of marijuana might be linked to decreased sperm count in men and delayed ovulation in women. Pregnant women who use marijuana are more likely to have a baby who weighs less than expected and might be more likely to have babies with developmental and behavioral problems, but this science is not yet clear on the exact risks.
People who smoke or vape marijuana regularly can develop problems with the respiratory system — like more mucus, chronic cough and bronchitis.
There is also good reason to be concerned with the safety of some vaping products. In 2019, the U.S. experienced an outbreak of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) that hospitalized thousands and killed at least 68 people. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that this outbreak was associated with an unapproved additive used in illegal market cannabis products. Concerningly, not all cases could be associated with this contaminant and some safety concerns about this method of marijuana use remain.
Immune system problems
The immune system is closely tied to the endocannabinoid system. Frequent marijuana use might make it harder for the body to fight off infections, but high-quality scientific data is seriously lacking.
People who report frequent marijuana are also more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety, but the research is unclear if this is marijuana causing these symptoms or simply a correlation. If someone has a condition like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, there is science to say that marijuana can often make symptoms worse.
Non-medical long-term effects of marijuana for young people
Use of other substances
According to NIDA, some research suggests that marijuana use is associated use of other licit and illicit substances — such as alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs — and the development of addiction. It is important to note that NIDA notes that this effect, known as the gateway effect, is true for children and teens who use alcohol and nicotine as well, and this effect is not specific to marijuana.
Marijuana laws can be confusing. Some states are changing their laws to make it legal to have small amounts of marijuana in some situations (like when it is prescribed for medical use). Some have even made recreational use and home cultivation of marijuana by adults (over 21) legal. But there are conflicting federal laws against using, growing or selling marijuana — and people caught in the wrong situation with it could still face charges, including jail time.
These days, employers often test for drug use as part of the hiring process. Marijuana can show up on a drug test for several weeks after it was last used. So, people who use marijuana may find they don’t get the job they want because of the drug screening, even despite having a good interview. Some companies do routine drug tests on employees, so people who use marijuana can sometimes lose their jobs because of it.
Lack of productivity
The sedative quality of marijuana can cause users to feel tired and lack motivation during use. Because of this, they may not feel compelled to accomplish positive, productive tasks such as doing homework, participating in extra-curricular activities, and building healthy relationships with friends and family. More frequent use is more strongly associated with this lack of motivation.
What is the typical medical use for marijuana?
The marijuana plant remains federally illegal in the U.S., but that does not mean there is no medical use for the chemicals found inside of it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved medications containing THC or other cannabinoids (chemicals similar to THC) as a way to help relieve pain, nausea, muscle stiffness or problems with movement. Occasionally this THC-containing medication is used in pediatric patients.
There is still a lot of discussion about the medical use of marijuana, though, with 37 states now approving the use of medical marijuana for a variety of conditions. However, scientific research supporting these programs is not considered very strong by much of the medical community, says Codi.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) opposes the use of medical marijuana outside the regulatory process of the FDA. However, the AAP recognizes that marijuana may be an option for children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions and for whom current therapies are inadequate.
Is marijuana addictive?
Yes, marijuana can be addictive. About one in 10 people who use the drug regularly can develop a cannabis use disorder (CUD) at some point. For people struggling with the disorder, it means that they continue using marijuana even though it causes problems in their lives, often choosing cannabis over other activities they enjoy. Children and teens under 16 years who use marijuana are twice as likely to develop cannabis use disorder.
How can parents help their kids quit using marijuana?
People who use marijuana for a while can develop withdrawal symptoms when they try to give it up. They may feel irritable, anxious or depressed; have trouble sleeping; experience vivid dreams; or not feel like eating.
And while these symptoms may seem mild, withdrawal usually worsens a few days after someone stops using marijuana. After that, withdrawal symptoms gradually decrease. They usually subside in a week or two after the person no longer uses the drug but can linger upwards of a month in certain users.
Instead of using marijuana, parents should encourage their kids to support their endocannabinoid system (brain) with healthy, positive activities such as exercising, eating healthy, hanging out with friends, and even listening to or playing music.
How can parents prevent their kids from using marijuana in the first place?
Don’t over-stigmatize marijuana, Codi recommends. Be open and honest with your kids about marijuana. Explain that although marijuana is not as harmful as other drugs, it can still negatively affect their bodies, minds and professional life.
Keep an eye out for changing behavior in your kids and teens. Are they socializing with new people who you have not met before? Are they avoiding something in their lives like school, sports or friends? Are they isolating themselves? If you notice any significant changes in behavior, have a conversation with your child about how they are doing.
Also watch for signs that your child is using marijuana through concealed methods like marijuana gummies, edibles and vaping. With the accessibility of vaping, children and teens may easily be able to conceal their THC use. Vaping can irritate the lungs, can lead to smoking in other forms like cigarettes, and in rare cases cause serious lung damage and even death.
If you can sense that your child may be struggling and using marijuana to escape, keep an open line of communication about how they are feeling. Access resources like a school counselor, your pediatrician and CHOC’s mental health toolkit for additional support.
Support is also available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment referral. SAMHSA’s National Helpline is free and confidential, with a year-round treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Get more expert health advice delivered to your inbox monthly by subscribing to the KidsHealth newsletter here.
The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.