This Is Your Brain on Marijuana: What to Tell Teens

marijuana effects on the brain
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Thirty states and the District of Columbia have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted the most expansive laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

That means marijuana use will be a growing issue for youth groups. How should youth pastors and parents address it?

Here are some factors parents and youth pastors will want to consider as they struggle with what, if anything, they should say about cannabis.

There’s a good chance some in your youth group are already using it.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, last year six percent of high school seniors and three percent of 10th graders smoked marijuana every day.  

NIDA also reports that more than 70 percent of high school students don’t see any harm coming from smoking pot every day. But the science disagrees.

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found teenagers who regularly smoke cannabis suffer long lasting brain damage and are in much greater danger of developing schizophrenia.

American researchers say the drug is particularly dangerous for a group of people who have a genetic susceptibility to the mental health disorder—and it could be the trigger for it.

Researcher Asaf Keller told the Daily Mail, “We found that the frontal cortex is much more affected by the drugs during adolescence. This is the area of the brain that controls executive functions such as planning and impulse control. It is also the area most affected in schizophrenia.”

In California, statewide sampling surveys of cannabis products sold in marijuana dispensaries have shown that cannabis products may contain dangerous bacteria or mold, or residues from pesticides and solvents.

Matthew Springer, a biologist and professor in the division of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco, told NPR, “People think cannabis is fine because it’s ‘natural.’ I hear this a lot. I don’t know what it means.”

But even if the cannabis tests clean, Springer says, smoke itself is bad for the lungs, heart and blood vessels. Other researchers are exploring the possible relationship between marijuana smoke and long-term cancer risk.

Other health risks to consider:

Marijuana is addictive. About one in six people who start using as a teen, and 25-50 percent of those who use it every day, become addicted to marijuana.

Mental problems. People who use marijuana prior to the age of 12 are twice as likely to experience a serious mental illness compared to those who first use marijuana at age 18 or older.

Increased heart rate. When someone uses marijuana, heart rate—normally 70 to 80 beats per minute—may increase by 20 to 50 beats per minute or, in some cases, even double. This effect can be greater if other drugs are taken with marijuana. The increased heart rate forces the heart to work extra hard to keep up.

Respiratory problems. Smoke from marijuana irritates the lungs, and can cause a chronic cough—effects similar to those from regular cigarettes. While research has not found a strong association between marijuana and lung cancer, many people who smoke marijuana also smoke cigarettes, which do cause cancer. And, some studies have suggested that smoking marijuana could make it harder to quit cigarette smoking.

Increased use in general could also negatively impact those who don’t smoke. A study from the University of California, San Francisco, demonstrated that just one minute of exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke makes it harder for the arteries of rats to expand and allow a healthy flow of blood.

One other aspect youth pastors might want to consider—parents expect them to talk about marijuana. According to a recent Barna study, 58 percent of parents want youth pastors to warn their teens about drug and alcohol use.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.

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