Talking to Teens About Marijuana Use

. February 29, 2020.
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Recreational marijuana use, legal in Michigan as of December 1, 2019, is now sold by eight licensed dispensaries in Ann Arbor, among the first early licensed retailers in the state. As recreational marijuana in Michigan finds its footing, conversations with young people about marijuana are also evolving. The sale and use of recreational marijuana is restricted by the law, prohibiting anyone under the age of 21 from participating in recreational use.

For those under 21, not a lot has changed, legally, regarding marijuana purchasing and use. But that doesn’t mean the law has not had an impact on that group, raising new questions and new opportunities for education.

What parents should know

Siân Owen-Cruise, administrator at the Rudolf Steiner School, said the new law and influx of recreational dispensaries in the community was a change significant enough to warrant a direct conversation with parents on the topic. While the school hosts regular annual presentations for parents concerning student drug and alcohol issues, this year the focus has been on marijuana.

Siân Owen-Cruise, school administrator at Rudolf Steiner School, recently organized a presentation for parents covering marijuana and teens.

Siân Owen-Cruise, school
administrator at Rudolf Steiner School, recently organized a
presentation for parents covering marijuana and teens.

Owen-Cruise and other staff shared information with parents about the recently activated law, reminding parents that school rules prohibiting the substance had not changed. They also educated parents about the negative effects of marijuana on young, maturing brains and stressed the importance of communication between students, parents and educators. The talk, she explains, was well-received.

“It’s important that parents understand that there’s a reason why their teen should not be participating in recreational marijuana use. It’s not just a legal issue, it’s also a health and brain maturity issue.”

Health effects

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a policy statement, has warned against marijuana use for those under age 21, citing data showing negative health and brain development effects due to marijuana use by children and adolescents. The organization recommends strictly enforcing rules limiting access as well as restricting marketing and advertising the substance to youth. The Centers for Disease Control also warns that using marijuana can have “long-lasting effects on a teen’s health and well-being.”

Contradicting the idea that marijuana use is benign, Dr. Terry Bravender, a specialist in adolescent health at the U of M, wants parents to know that exposing teen brains to marijuana is not without consequences.

Contradicting the idea that marijuana use is benign, Dr. Terry Bravender, a specialist in adolescent health at the U of M, wants parents to know that exposing teen brains to marijuana is not without consequences.

Dr. Terry Bravender, a UM adolescent medicine specialist and director of the Adolescent Health Initiative, said teens and parents likely have a lower concern of the health risks from marijuana currently than they may have had in a non-legalized environment. With the majority of states in the country having some form of available medical marijuana, the perception is that if it’s used as a medicine, then it must be more benign than previously thought. “Exposing teen brains to marijuana is not a benign thing by any means,” Bravender counters.

Parents should make sure children understand marijuana may have lasting negative cognitive effects and have an impact on school performance, job performance and lifelong earning potential. “The biggest acute risk for a teen for alcohol, marijuana or any drug is driving under the influence, so parents should include conversations about impaired driving,” he added.

Concern over the availability of edibles

The legal availability of marijuana in various forms, including edibles, also creates the potential for accidental ingestion, Bravender warns. He explains that some of the current products on the market contain as much as three times the amount of THC in products from the 1970s and ‘80s, so people, and especially parents, may not be aware of the increased potency.

Owen-Cruise said access to marijuana by young people, the potency of the products as well as the difficulty in enforcement when edible products are out of their packaging, are valid concerns.

“The presence of legal, high-potency edibles is the biggest change, from my point of view, as a school administrator. The primary thing that parents don’t understand about edibles is just how concentrated [the psychoactive ingredients contained in them] are.”

The Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency currently calls for packaging on edibles that “would not appeal to minors aged 17 years or younger,” prohibiting products from being associated with cartoons or caricatures appealing to minors while also banning the use of the word ‘candy’ on any packaging or labeling. Packaging is also required to be opaque and child-resistant.

Owen-Cruise visited marijuana dispensaries, talking with the staff and buying samples of marijuana products and a vaping device to show parents at the presentation. She said many parents are unfamiliar with how the products look and were appreciative of the chance to see them in person and to talk about what is actually available in the legal retail market. Vaping devices, for example, are innocuous looking objects, resembling a pen or USB drive, so parents may not know what they are looking at if they see the items in their child’s backpack.

Dispensary staff, she said, were very open and willing to share information. “They are business people and were quite happy to talk about how they check identification and limit what people can buy. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law, so there’s not a danger, from what I can tell, of students having access [to cannabis products] through the dispensaries.”

Impact of legalization on young people is unknown

Because legal sales of recreational marijuana just began in December 2019, there isn’t yet a sense of what effect this will have on marijuana use among young people. However, a paper published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatric last summer suggests marijuana use among teens may actually decline after the implementation of recreational marijuana laws. The study’s authors suggest that it may be more difficult for teenagers to obtain marijuana when illegal sales are replaced by licensed dispensaries. The research behind the paper’s conclusions found no evidence that legalization of medical marijuana has had any effect on marijuana use among youth.

When asked about the study, Bravender said it is an evolving question and too early to tell in the state of Michigan. “I do know that over the last decade or two, when teens are asked about ease of access, in many areas adolescents report that it is easier to obtain marijuana than it is to buy alcohol.” The retail market for recreational marijuana has just opened, he said, so legalization in Michigan has not had much effect on the underground market to date.

In counseling physicians about how to talk to their teen patients about the use of marijuana, Bravender said that the legal status is just one risk involved in teen use. “The most effective approach with doctors is talking to the patient about individual risk of impairment. We want physicians in the office to counsel what those health risks are without any implication or judgement about the morality of drug use. We want (those under 21) to understand the dangers to lung function impairments, cognitive impairments, risk of motor vehicle crashes, risk of poor school performance. Legal consequences are just one piece, just as it is for alcohol possession.”

Owen-Cruise said their biggest piece of advice in counseling parents about talking to teens is that parents can use the changes in the law and the opening of the dispensaries as an entry point to talk to their children about the topic.

“It’s a very natural moment to have that conversation and to let them know what you feel and think as a parent. The normalization of marijuana in our community that is created by legality and the opening of dispensaries changes the conversations we need to have. It becomes more like conversations about alcohol. We have to help students understand the subtleties of development, appropriateness and legality.”

For more resources to share with teens concerning marijuana use visit cdc.gov

Legislation calls for warning labels

Bills passed by both the Michigan House and Senate requiring marijuana product warning labels were on their way to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in early February. The legislation calls for marijuana products to have labels warning women who are pregnant or breastfeeding about the health risks to the fetus and infant. Also in the legislation was the requirement that customers be given informational pamphlets that include safety information about marijuana use by minors and a poison control hotline number.