Kids think marijuana is safe, but pot is harmful to their developing brains

Kids think marijuana is safe, but pot is harmful to their developing brains

Have you heard about the group of third graders in Sonora, California who were caught smoking marijuana in the elementary school bathroom? Yup. It happened last week. You can read about it here. The police chief said the 8 and 9 year-olds are too young to face criminal charges.

It's an unusual case, thank goodness, because drug use among the early tween set is far from common. In older tweens, however, it's a bit more common. The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study surveyed 40,000 students and found that there was a slight increase in the number of kids using drugs. More and more kids also believe  that pot isn't dangerous.

They're wrong.

Researchers found approximately 13% of 8th graders used marijuana. That number jumped to 30% of 10th graders and 36% in 12th grade.

While the number of tokers has increased, the number of kids who think pot is risky has decreased. A full 60% believe it is harmless, which researchers at the National Institutes of Health have shown may be the result of campaigns in several states to legalize marijuana.

What is okay for adults, however, may not be okay for tweens and teens (despite their protests to the contrary) and scientific studies shows that pot is no exception.

Marijuana impacts the developing brain of kids differently than it impacts the adult brain. Many researchers are making the case that kids and marijuana do not belong together.

"It's the absolute worst time [to smoke marijuana]," Krista Lisdahl, director of the brain imaging and neuropsychology lab at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, told NPR.

They likely have no idea how smoking pot can impact memory processing as well as the ability to control emotions. A tween or teen's brain absorbs marijuana differently than a fully developed brain.

"[F]or adolescents, these are issues that they struggle with anyway because of their developmental period," said Kathy Meyers, a senior research scientist at Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, when interviewed by WHYY.  She said the perception that marijuana can relieve symptoms for people does not mean that it is a medicine and does not mean that it is harmless.

Kids need to know that there are short-term and long-term effects that come with smoking pot. The short-term impact can mean not making the play in the big game or impacting GPA because it's harder to remember something for a test.

Hans Breiter, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine studied marijuana's impact on teens and concluded, "Marijuana is the ideal compound to screw up everything for a kid."

"If you're an athlete, a chess player, a debater or an artist, you need working memory, and marijuana hurts the brain circuitry," he said.

As for the long-term impact, adults who smoked marijuana as teenagers did worse in IQ, memory and decision-making tests than adults who had not smoked pot, Duke researchers found in a study.

Kelly said that whether someone is for or against medical marijuana, the fact remains that pot is not good for tween and teen brains that are still developing. She said that it's a very different scenario but those differences aren't being discussed in the media.

"It's not rocket science to think if you smoke weed when your brain is developing, that it can't be 'good' for you, just like any 'toxic' substance isn't good for you," Dr. Gregory Tau, a psychiatrist and drug abuse researcher at Columbia University, told NPR.

Even if kids do see it as a medicine, kids need to know that medicines are not always good for you, that they can and often do have negative impacts on the body and that they can be abused.

Kelly added that it is "tremendously more potent" than marijuana from a few decades ago, which means that it is stronger and therefore has a stronger impact than the weed that parents may have smoked.

There are no FDA-approved medical reasons for children or teenagers to use marijuana or THC in any form. It's also worth noting that, in 2011, nearly 4.2 million people 12 and older had a marijuana abuse or addiction problem. And teens absolutely need to know that it is not safe to drive while high, with marijuana being the most commonly identified illicit drug in fatal accidents.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers the resource Talking to Your Kids - Communicating the Risks about Marijuana.

Check out the Parent Talk Kit from the Medicine Abuse Project for tips on discussing prescription medicine abuse and your own prior drug use with kids.

Talk with your kids that legalized marijuana for adults does not mean that it's safe for them. Explain how their brains are changing and developing and that pot is harmful to that process. Take advantage of the news story about the third graders in the bathroom to start the discussion, and keep talking.

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Filed under: Parenting

Tags: drugs, marijuana

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