In the wake of the passage of the referendum to legalize recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, I feel a need to write to the parents of Maine teens.
I’ve been a public school life skills teacher for over 25 years. I currently work as an alcohol and drug prevention education specialist for a nonprofit organization. In my work, I talk to students across the country about the extent of alcohol and other drug use and its implications for their teenage bodies and brains.
Teens perceive marijuana use by their peers to be much higher than it really is. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Study has been collecting data on teenage use of alcohol and other drugs for over 40 years. According to this study, the percentage of eighth-graders using marijuana over the past year is 12 percent. Twenty-five percent of students in grade 10 and 35 percent of high school seniors have used marijuana in the past year.
Before I present these numbers to teens, I ask them if they think their peers use marijuana. Their answer is unanimously “yes.” I then ask them to estimate the percentage of people in their age group who use marijuana. Consistently they estimate that anywhere from 25 percent to 70 percent of their peers use marijuana. They are shocked to hear that use is lower than they thought.
Teens tend to underestimate the extent to which many of their peers actually practice healthy lifestyles; therefore, I use the study’s data to emphasize that if 12 percent of eighth-graders are experimenting with marijuana, 88 percent are not. Seventy-five percent of 10th-graders and 65 percent of 12th-graders in the U.S. are not using marijuana. The idea that not “everyone is doing it” can be a relief to teens.
It is never too early to talk to teens about marijuana, particularly edible forms of the drug. When the marijuana industry moves to Maine, teens need to recognize that edibles are marketed to resemble products that are familiar to them such as candy bars, gummy bears, Pop-Tarts, lollipops and brownies.
Teens are concerned that they may unwittingly be offered marijuana candy by a peer as a teenage “prank.” Products like these are infused with THC, the ingredient that gets you high, and labeled with names like Hashee (like Hershey) or Pot Tarts and Keef Kat Bars. The candies can look so similar to the real thing that they can be hard to distinguish even though THC warnings appear on the label. As parents, we can help them understand the difference between regular candy and marijuana-infused edibles.
Here are some other facts that may help you when you talk about marijuana with your teens:
• The brain is not fully developed until age 25, making teenagers more vulnerable to drug dependence or addiction than adults.
• A family history of addiction can increase a teen’s risk for becoming dependent on or addicted to marijuana.
• Marijuana affects memory, making learning new information more difficult.
• Teenagers’ social and emotional maturity, motivation to do well in school and their ability to make healthy decisions are compromised through marijuana use.
• Marijuana affects motor coordination, making it more difficult to drive a car when under the influence.
• The term “medical” is applied to some forms of marijuana. It does not mean that all marijuana is medically safe, which is a false perception held by some teens.
• The concentration of THC in marijuana is often much higher in marijuana products today than it was 20 years ago.
• Marijuana edibles must travel through the digestive system before reaching the brain, taking it longer than smoking marijuana to produce a high. Unaware teens may consume repeated quantities of edibles trying to build a desired effect before the initial dosage hits their bloodstream, resulting in toxic amounts of THC in the body and sometimes causing teens to experience panic attacks or paranoia.
Now that Maine has passed a law allowing marijuana to be used recreationally by adults who are at least 21, it is our responsibility to educate teens in Maine on the impact of this drug on their brain’s neurochemistry and their cognitive and emotional development. The better armed they are with this information, the more tools they have to navigate the road of risk that marijuana presents to their teenage brains and bodies.
Barbara Sullivan is a resident of Portland.