Marijuana Risks

What can adults do?
Mother and daughter in flower garden
Table of Contents
The younger a person uses marijuana, the greater the risk of experiencing emotional and physical difficulties.

The Confusion Surrounding Marijuana

During the 2016 election cycle, residents in several areas of the United States voted in favor of recreational and medicinal marijuana use within their states. Others have also "decriminalized" personal use of marijuana.

While these developments predominantly affect the legality of marijuana use by adults only, they contribute a lot of misunderstanding about the actual emotional and physical risks that marijuana poses for young people. Confusion leads to the (inaccurate) belief that if it's "legal" or "medical," it must not be harmful.

Sound familiar? Alcohol went through the same misconceptions (e.g., "If it's not against the law, it must be safe"), yet now most recognize that teen and adolescent alcohol use presents serious health risks. That's why there is a legal age restriction for the sale, possession and use of alcohol, and why most states allow parents who serve underage persons in their home to be held both civilly and criminally responsible.

Real Risks for Young People

Research has clearly shown that early use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs greatly increases the risk of addiction and a variety of other developmental problems for young people.

Yet, as marijuana laws change for adults in the U.S. population, teens tend to perceive less and less risk in recreational marijuana use by people their own age. As reported by The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America,

Media coverage has led to a number of misconceptions about medical marijuana and has largely ignored two critical facts: 1) smoked marijuana is not a 'medicine'; and 2) the more misinformation that gets to the public stating that marijuana is medicine, the more youth will view it as harmless and the more likely they will be to use it.

Indeed, it has been shown that there is a direct connection between the legal, medical use of marijuana in U.S. states by adults and the illegal, recreational use of marijuana in U.S. states by children ages 12 to 17.

There are legitimate medical uses for some of the chemical components of the marijuana plant for persons with chronic and/or terminal illness. Children are receiving an increasingly mixed message about this substance, and it's a message we can help clarify with them through healthy communication.

What Adults Can Do to Reduce Confusion for Teens

Don't be confused about the risks adolescents face from marijuana use:

  • Become familiar with the risks for young people who use marijuana. Helpful websites include, and
  • Understand that many of the same risks apply for both alcohol and marijuana use. Early use of marijuana poses legal risk, impairs driving, interferes with brain function and predisposes young people to drug dependence just as early use of alcohol or other mind-altering chemicals do.
  • Don't forget that while marijuana use may now be legal for adults in most states, it remains illegal for underage use in all states. Young people can still get into far more serious trouble for use and possession of marijuana than is often likely for use and possession of alcohol.
  • Remember that marijuana use by adolescents always equals risk. While questions of medical use and decriminalization may have their place in political and societal debates, the fact remains that the younger a person is when he or she uses marijuana, the greater the risk of experiencing emotional and physical difficulties.
  • Correct the misperception that marijuana is harmless for young people by helping them understand how false normative beliefs work. Help young people identify how misinformation can enable harmful behavior.

Clearing the Air

A significant part of our continuing effort to keep kids healthy must include our ability to consistently reach them with accurate information. Social norms research has shown that teenagers greatly overestimate the amount and frequency of alcohol and other drug use by peers. This overestimation is even greater when young children are asked to estimate the amount of use by older students.

But if this misperception is corrected, students of all ages are less likely to engage in substance use and other risk-taking behavior. Such positive corrections include:

  • Fewer students consumed alcohol for the first time before age 13 in 2015 than in 2013.
  • Fewer students used marijuana, once or more in their lifetime, in 2015 than in 2013.
  • Most students, and 71% of high school seniors in 2015, disapprove of regular marijuana smoking.
  • Nine out of 10 high school students have not used cigarettes in the past 30 days.
  • Students who say they probably or definitely will complete four years of college have lower rates of illicit drug use than do those who say they probably or definitely will not.
  • Two out of three high school seniors have not used marijuana in the past 30 days. Three out of every four high school students in general, combining grades 9-12, have not used marijuana in the past 30 days.

Confront the myths. The fact remains that most U.S. teens do not use marijuana. Don't let the hype distract from the fact that youth who use marijuana are in the minority among their peers, and their use comes with real risks.

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