Researchers at the University of Michigan survey 8th, 10th and 12th-graders every year in what is known as the ‘Monitoring the Future survey’. The university conducts that survey every year and this year the survey revealed that overall use of marijuana amongst the surveyed teens increased while the perception of potential harm of the drug decreased.
The 2012 survey reveals that amongst high school seniors, 6.5% smoke marijuana every day. This is an increase from 5.1% just five years ago. When asked, almost 23% admitted that they have used the drug in the last 30 days, while a massive 36% admitted that they used it in the last twelve months. The numbers are lowered amongst tenth graders, with 3.5% admitting to daily use, 17% reporting monthly use and 28% reporting they have used the drug in the past twelve months. The survey reveals that the overall use escalates after the eighth grade, considering that the numbers are much lower amongst this group (1.1% daily, 6.5% within the last month, and 11% in the last year).
The Perception of Harm is Decreasing
The study also revealed that not only did more teens smoke cannabis, but they also believed it was less harmful. When teens perceive the dangers associated with use to be lower, it can signal future increases in use. Amongst the eighth graders surveyed, only 41.7% perceived the drug to be harmful when used recreationally while 66.9% saw it as harmful when used regularly. Ever since the survey started asking about risk perception within this age group in 1991, those numbers have never been that low.
As teenagers become older, they also perceive marijuana as less harmful. Amongst 12th graders only 20.6% see occasional use as harmful, this is the lowest figure since 1983. When asked about regular use, less than half of the teens (44.1%) saw regular use as harmful; this is the lowest reported number since 1979. Clearly, the use of cannabis is not seen as something dangerous or harmful with a large percentage of young adults.
Harmless Drug? The Opposite is True
Whereas the perception of harm may be lowered amongst teens, recent studies have shown that using marijuana, especially at these younger ages when the brain is still developing, may be far more dangerous than initially believed. Recent studies reveal why teen use of marijuana is something that people cannot afford to turn a blind eye to:
- Studies show that when using marijuana before turning 18, teenagers are 200% to 400% more likely to develop a psychosis by the time they reach adulthood.
- THC is the main active component of marijuana. Extensive research has shown that when taken excessively during the teenage years, THC may negatively affect brain development. The part of the brain that appears to take most of the damage is the hippocampus, this part of the brain is vital for retaining memories and learning new things.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the result of a 38-year NIH-funded study, revealed that those who use marijuana heavily in their teens and continue to use throughout their adult life will experience a dramatic drop in IQ between age 13 and 38. On average, those who met the criteria for cannabis dependence dropped eight points. Heavy use before the age of 18 (again, this is when the brain is still in development) also led to impaired mental abilities. These impaired mental abilities remained even after the user no longer took the drug. All these findings are consistent with many other studies that show a correlation between long-term, heavy cannabis use and neural or cognitive impairment.
It Has Physical Problems as Well
Mental health issues are not the only concern with the decreased perception of cannabis harm. Remember that cannabis smoke is filled with respiratory irritants and carcinogens. Some teens mistakenly believe that smoking from devices such as water pipes might somehow reduce the damage done to the lungs, another reason for the mistaken perception of safety. Even though tobacco smoke and cannabis smoke contain many of the same chemicals, users will inhale far deeper and hold the smoke in their lungs far longer when using cannabis. The longer someone keeps the smoke in their system, the more they expose their lungs to respiratory irritants and carcinogens. This is one of the reasons that long-term users have many of the same issues that plague long-term tobacco users, including being susceptible to bronchitis, coughs and chest colds.
Doesn’t it also Serve as a Gateway Drug?
The truth is that even with the lowered perception of risk; the vast majority of teenagers will not seek out heroin, cocaine, opioids, or anything else because of their earlier cannabis use. However, studies have shown that most teenagers will not try other illicit substances without having tried cannabis first. Trying an illicit substance will lower the threshold for using other substances later on and may put users in contact with people who will sell other, far more dangerous, illicit substances. Even though the opportunity to do so does not necessarily mean that people will begin to make use of it, does open the door to other drugs.
It is Not a Harmless Drug
Especially for teenagers whose bodies and brains are still developing, the use of marijuana can be dangerous. While we have to be careful not to demonize it and suggest it is as dangerous or addictive as cocaine and heroin, just because it does not lead to the same amount of harm or dependence, does not mean it is a healthy alternative that should be explored. Even though science is finding out that there are possible medicinal benefits to the use of marijuana, it is not without its dangers. Clearly, this is a point that many teenagers are unaware of. Instead of demonizing the drug and stating that use will lead to addiction, education should focus on the fact that there are scientific reasons that cannabis use, especially for teens, can lead to serious regrets down the road.