As adult attitudes about marijuana use across the US continue to shift in favor of both medical and recreational legalization, it seems teenage marijuana views are evolving as well with fewer and fewer teenagers believing it's risky to use the drug.
Early results from the bi-annual Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, show that the percentage of teenagers who perceive pot as a risky drug to use has dropped to 54 percent in 2013, from 58 percent in 2011 — the first year marijuana related questions were added to the survey.
"A lot of kids perception of risk is influenced by those around them," the chief of health statistics at Colorado's health department Alyson Soupe told VICE News, noting, however, that the results show just "a small decrease."
While it's inside the margin for error, Colorado's findings mirror a national trend among teenagers. Over the past decade, the number of teens who perceive a great risk from being a regular marijuana user has fallen — in some cases to numbers well below 50 percent — across all three grades surveyed by the National Institute of Health (NIH). The NIH conducts an annual Monitoring the Future study among the nation's eighth, tenth, and eleventh grade students. According to the NIH, these changing viewpoints are reflected in continually high rates of marijuana use.
'There's a strong correlation with substance abuse of any kind and high risk situations.'
At this point it's difficult to know if legalization of recreational weed in Colorado and Washington, and medical marijuana in nearly two dozen other states is helping hook more teenagers, but it's probably not curbing the problem."I can't say legalization is helping marijuana's use decrease in adolescents," Dr. Tonya Chaffee, a clinical professor of pediatrics at University California San Francisco explained.
Chaffee is on the front lines of battling addiction and other ailments teenagers face. She has worked in pediatrics at UCSF for 14 years and the vast majority of her patients are teenagers from underprivileged or troubled homes. Many, she said, use marijuana to self medicate because they're dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after scenarios like gunshot wounds or violent home situations. According to Chaffee, every month at least one teenager asks her for a medical marijuana prescription. She said she doesn't write any of the requested prescriptions, but guessed that about 90 percent are for recreational use only.
"It's kind of a way to numb things out, and there's a strong correlation with substance abuse of any kind and high risk situations," she said, explaining that as legalization has made it easier to get marijuana, it becomes more acceptable for teenagers to use it.
Chaffee's experience, however, may not necessarily translate to the majority of teenagers, who are using less marijuana post-legalization, according to Marsha Rosenbaum of the Drug Policy Alliance. The Colorado study indicated a slight decrease in high school kids who said they had smoked weed in the last 30 days, falling from 22 percent to 20 percent.
But legalization doesn't mean it's safe for teenagers to use. "At lot of people don't realize that it's addictive," Dr. Chaffee said. "I have many kids who use every day, and they're going to keep doing that. They say they can stop, but they don't." Chaffee noted that many of her patients who smoke daily report flu-like withdrawal symptoms after they stop smoking.
According to Columbia University's Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse's recent announcement that the vast majority of teenagers, who admit they've sought treatment for drug addiction, did so for weed.
When a teen patient checks in at the hospital, Dr. Chaffee said one of the first telltale signs of chronic marijuana use is the grade point average. Teenagers who smoke weed once and a while, Chaffee said, don't usually have a problem, but those who smoke every day can't focus in school.
This anecdotal evidence seemingly correlates with a recently study from Northwestern University. The lead researcher on the study, Dr. Matthew Smith, focuses his work on examining weed's effects on the brain. His recent study looked at a group of subjects in their early twenties, who had smoked daily in their teens, and then stopped smoking marijuana altogether for three years before the study.
'We're at the same stage with research about marijuana, as we were in the prohibition era for alcohol.'
Using a combination of fMRI brain scans, and memory tests, Smith and his team determined that heavy marijuana use during teenage years actually changes the way the part of our brain that handles working memory forms.
"These structures were abnormally shaped in the two groups with daily marijuana use," Smith told VICE News, explaining that abnormal brain formation translated into poor performance on a battery of memory tests the patients underwent as well. "These shaped abnormalities statistically correlated, significantly correlated with memory assessments."
The scientists also found that the earlier a person used marijuana, the greater the changes were in their brain. Chaffee said a teenagers' physiology is especially susceptible to drug use — legal ones such as alcohol and nicotine included —because of the way their brains and psychology develop.
Despite the new ground broken by Smith and others, Smith acknowledged that pot research is in its infancy. With all the uncertainties and variances in the drug and the research surrounding it, we don't entirely understand many of marijuana's effects on our physiology or the potential health consequences of long term use.
"We're at the same stage with research about marijuana, as we were in the prohibition era for alcohol," he said. "People were mixing alcohol with whatever they had to make whiskey and had no idea what the proof was — whatever would get them drunk. With marijuana it's quite similar and few people have any idea what the THC content is, and what they're using."
Regardless, dialogue about public health concerns among physicians, health officials and politicians, is an important step in educating the public about the potential health consequences for teenagers. In lieu of government guidance — aside from cautioning people on the addictive properties — Chaffee said she does the best she can to educate her patients, explaining to them that daily marijuana use at that age isn't without consequences.
"It's important to help understand that they're going to miss that opportunity for a lot of cognitive growth," she said.
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn
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