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:
- Students know a lot about weed. They know about all the various types of weed: strains and varieties, edibles, concentrates etc..
- They are surrounded by weed. Weed is everywhere! Parents, siblings, relatives, friends— if you’re young in this day and age, and even if you’re not a regular user of marijuana, someone near you is.
- They really want to know about the health impacts of marijuana use. We spent most of the 90 minutes talking about health. What is medical marijuana good for? What happens if you smoke weed often? The young people understood that cigarettes are bad for you, but they had little information about the dangers of non-medical marijuana use. I shared the research on how frequent marijuana use can affect brain development among young people, can be a trigger for schizophrenia and other mental health issues, and how it is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. This information led to more questions and dialogue with the young people.
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.