Of the fifty stars sewn in white on the American flag, twenty-eight could now be considered painted green.
According to data published on the Governing website, twenty states have legalized medical marijuana, three have legalized recreational marijuana, and five have legalized both forms. (Some states that lack broader legalization may provide “limited access under certain circumstances”–in Alabama and Mississippi, for example, medical marijuana is allowed in cases of severe epileptic conditions.)
Marijuana is comprised of the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds of the hemp plant (cannabis sativa). Among other compounds, marijuana contains the mind-altering delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. The most commonly used illegal drug in the United States according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can be consumed as smoke, vapor, or foods called edibles. When smoked, THC quickly enters the bloodstream and is carried to the brain and other organs, while THC in edibles is absorbed more slowly.
THC interacts with receptors in the brain that normally engage with chemicals that are similar to THC. These THC-like chemicals are a natural part of brain development and function. But THC from marijuana inundates the areas of the brain most concentrated with these receptors, causing a high that can include altered senses, altered perception of time, shifts in mood, impaired body movement, difficulty thinking or problem solving, and impaired memory.
Teen access to marijuana
According to Business Insider, one in five people in the U.S. will soon live somewhere with legal marijuana. With more states granting legalization of marijuana, many worry that teens will gain easier access to marijuana and dismiss the negative consequences of the drug, leading to greater risk for potential abuse. In fact, the impact of legislation on teen use and perception of marijuana has been mixed so far.
The 2016 bi-annual Washington Healthy Youth Survey analyzed the monthly marijuana consumption of over 230,000 students from 1,000 schools. The research found that only six percent of eighth graders, seventeen percent of tenth graders, and fifty-two of seniors had used marijuana within a month–the same numbers seen in the 2014 survey. Teens’ perceived ease of obtaining cannabis also declined. According to the California Student Survey, teen marijuana use in California began falling right after the passage of the medical-marijuana law. In Colorado, where adult use has been legal since 2012, there was a rapid decline in teen marijuana use after recreational dispensaries opened in 2014. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 18.35 percent of teens in Colorado (ages twelve to seventeen) had used marijuana within the last year, as opposed to the 20.81 in 2015.
However, the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey also reported an increased proportion of eighth graders who did not believe the risks of marijuana to be as serious as adults argued. (Only forty-eight percent perceived great risks from regular use of marijuana.)
While these numbers are helping us start to understand how the legalization of marijuana impacts teens, it will be difficult to make definitive statements until more research has been conducted. In the meantime, the focus should be on educating youth so that regardless of the legality of marijuana, they can make informed decisions.
The dangers of marijuana itself
Marijuana can have a myriad of physical and mental effects ranging from reduced cognitive function to substance abuse disorder.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can affect brain development. If use begins during the teenage years, marijuana can impact thinking, memory, and learning as well as how the brain forms connections between the areas needed for these functions. These effects may be long-term or even permanent. Those who use heavily may also report poorer life satisfaction, mental health, and physical health, and an increase in relationship problems.
Marijuana smokers may also experience similar respiratory problems as those who smoke tobacco, including daily cough and phlegm, more frequent lung illness, and a higher risk of lung infections. It is still unclear whether marijuana smokers are at a higher risk for lung cancer.
Marijuana use during pregnancy has been linked to adverse affects on the fetus during and after pregnancy, though more research is needed. Marijuana also raises heart rate for up to three hours after smoking, according to the National Institute, which may place older users at a higher risk for heart attack. Some long-term marijuana also users report temporary hallucinations or temporary paranoia, and worsening symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. Studies examining the relationship between marijuana and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thought have been mixed.
There are no reports of teens or adults fatally overdosing on marijuana alone, though some seek hospitalization for unease and shaking, and some experience side effects such as anxiety, paranoia, or hallucinations.
According to the NIH, thirty percent of those who use marijuana may develop some degree of marijuana use disorder. Those who begin using before age eighteen are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana use disorder.
How marijuana can lead to other substances
While some research suggests that marijuana use is likely to come before use of other drugs, the majority of people who use marijuana do not start using “harder” drugs, according to the National Institute.
In a study of longitudinal data from the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders, adults who reported marijuana use during the first wave of the survey were more likely than adults who did not use marijuana to develop an alcohol use disorder within three years. Marijuana is also linked to other substance use disorders like nicotine addiction, according to the NIH.
According to the Institute, although these findings may support an image of marijuana as a gateway drug, the majority of those who use still do not go on to use “harder” substances. While marijuana might prepare the brain for a heightened response to other drugs, nicotine and alcohol may have a similar effect. Nicotine and alcohol are also commonly used before a person progresses to more harmful substances.
In other words, marijuana may be a gateway drug for some, but a majority do not move on to more damaging drugs–and marijuana is not the only potential gateway to those harder drugs. Furthermore, there are other factors involved, such as the individual’s social environment and biological risk for drug use and addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, those who are more vulnerable to drug use “are simply more likely to start with” more easily available drugs like marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol. Much like research on teen perception and use of marijuana, more is needed in this area in order to understand how marijuana can lead to other substances.