On January 25th, 2018, Youth Forward, Public Health Advocates and the California Urban Partnership held a legislative briefing at the State Capitol on the health effects of marijuana use. Presenters shared research on medical uses and adverse health effects and discussed policy recommendations for state and local governments. The Sacramento Bee covered the briefing. To access the presentations click here.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune of speaking with a class of Latino, African-American, and Asian students at Florin High School (Go Panthers!) in South Sacramento. I want to thank the students and their teacher for an enlightening and energetic 90 minute dialogue about the Big Wide World of Weed. Wow!
Here are a few things that stood out in the conversation:
When I asked the students about why some young people become heavy users of marijuana and others don’t, the first word that came up was “stress.” Young people smoke weed to calm themselves and to deal with stress and anxiety. A young man said that young people who smoked weed all the time had given up on life; they had checked out. They didn’t see a future for themselves.
This insight by the Florin High students mirrors the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The researchers found that children and young people with anxiety disorders were more likely to be frequent marijuana users. Persistent users were also more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, and, no surprise were more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.
From what I’ve been learning, it seems fair to say that a significant percentage of young people who are heavy users of marijuana rely on it as a coping mechanism; they are “self-medicating.” They are using weed to take the edge off of anxiety and to get through the day. Unfortunately, the more they use, the more they dig themselves into a hole. The more they check out and are more likely to struggle in school and life.
In seeking to reduce marijuana use among young people, we need to find ways to provide greater social-emotional health supports to children and youth. We need to improve the overall environment for children and youth so that young people see a future for themselves and have positive alternatives to drug use.
When I asked the Florin High Students what would help, one young man talked about a program he participates in called Improve Your Tomorrow. This program helps young men of color to graduate and to go to college through building skills, confidence and knowledge. It’s helped him turn his life around.
We need to replace weed with hope, with caring relationships, and with real investments in children, youth and families.
On March 22nd of 2016, the National Institute for Drug Abuse and other organizations convened researchers to review the latest science on how marijuana affects the brain. The presentations are available on video.
Dr. Susan Tapert, a professor of psychiatry at UCSD School of Medicine, had some startling news to share about how marijuana affects the teen brain. Here are a few highlights of her study that compared teen marijuana users to non-users:
This information is not new. In the research literature on marijuana, there are multiple studies that have reached similar conclusions. In a summary of research to date, The New England Journal of Medicine reiterated Dr. Tapert’s conclusion and lifted up the link between marijuana use and an increased likelihood of dropping out of school (July 5, 2014).
Here’s what struck me. In all the debate, research and the policymaking regarding how to improve school achievement and reduce the dropout rate, when was the last time you heard educators and policymakers speak of marijuana as a factor in student performance?
Given marijuana’s negative effects on adolescent brain development, and the prevalence of marijuana use among teens, shouldn’t we have the explicit goal of reducing marijuana use among kids as part of California’s school improvement strategy?
How can we expect young people to get through high school and enter college when their ability to learn and remember information is impaired?
We should be particularly focused on delaying marijuana use. The earlier kids use marijuana, and the more frequent the use, the more damage done.
There is a great need for further research in this area. For example, we need to understand the effect of marijuana on the brains of young people who experienced trauma in their childhood and thus already struggle emotionally and cognitively. We need research on children who grew up in poverty, in the foster care system and who experienced violence at a young age.
If you want to watch Dr. Tapert’s presentation, go to 2:18 on the video.