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The Teen Brain Debate

What do we know about teenagers, the brain, and marijuana (cannabis)? This is an important subject to me because I have two kids – an 11-year-old and a nine-year-old. And they have brains.

The Teen Brain Debate

I think it’s really important to know what cannabis does to the teen brain and to make sure that we have the facts straight because we want people to be healthy and effective members of the community.

I’m pro-cannabis and it’s something I take very seriously. For years, studies have tried to figure out what happens to the teen brain while it’s still growing. This brain development is a major factor. The brain stops developing when we’re adults around 25 years old, and the debate is pretty much settled – cannabis does not hurt the adult brain. But for teens it’s debatable, right?

The Studies

One famous study called the Dunedin study conducted in New Zealand monitored teens for many years and determined that teens’ IQs decreased 6-8 points if they regularly used cannabis. This report made headlines, but it’s very dangerous to just put the evidence out there because this study has not been reproduced. They cannot find additional evidence to back up this study and a lot of people are skeptical. Newer studies show that it’s just not the case.

There’s another famous study that compared twins. There are a lot of issues to consider when doing a study on children of all types – alcoholism, cigarettes, home life, relationship to the drug, and whatnot – but when you study twins you can study exact genetic replicas. One of the twins was a regular cannabis user, the other twin was not. There was no difference in IQ over the course of that study and no observable damage in the teen who smoked pot.

Basically, it’s debatable and researchers cannot find a causal relationship. But it’s important to remember that cannabis does have effects on executive function. It can affect our ability to plan and engage in abstract thinking. So, these are subjective issues.

If you’re somebody who’s good at executive function and you smoke pot, it may not affect your executive function in a negative way. If cannabis tempers your abstract thinking and you can think a little bit more linearly with cannabis, that might be a benefit. I’ve seen that happen.

The point is that this debate will probably never be settled. We cannot take teenagers, give half of them marijuana every day for 10 years, have the other half be free of marijuana, and do a study. It’s unethical to test a drug like cannabis on teenagers, so we must look at as much evidence as we can and try to determine what happens.

We now have evidence that cannabis and cannabinoids are effective at neuroprotection, that they actually protect the brain. So, this is contradictory to the idea that cannabis kills brain cells or damages the brain.

The Teen Brain DebateIt’s important to remember things like issues of the brain. However, the evidence still doesn’t show that cannabis increases our risk of psychosis. We have millions of people smoking cannabis over the years, the strength of cannabis has gotten stronger, but the number of psychosis diagnoses in Americans has not increased. So, it’s pretty clear that when it comes to teenagers and cannabis there is no definitive causal relationship between cannabis being a negative thing for kids.

But it can be a negative thing. We know that. If we have teenagers in our lives who have issues with smoking pot all the time, then we know that there’s something amiss. Even colleagues I’ve met know that one person who just smokes a little bit too much cannabis and their brain is off. You can’t quite pin it down, but this is where subjective thinking comes into play. This is where we must be really careful with cannabis and acknowledge there are personalities and personal goals that are subjective.

If You’re Wondering

If you’re a parent and you’re wondering what legalization in your state is going to do for teens, there’s not a lot of evidence that suggests that teen use increases when we legalize. It may actually be offset by the fact that once you legalize marijuana – grandma’s smoking pot, dad’s smoking pot, everybody’s consuming cannabis – there’s just not as much cachet for the teenagers and so they’re off to other things.

In general, I think cannabis legalization is still safe for teens. The net benefit to society in terms of reducing other opiates and reducing alcohol use still shows promise. But I think the most important thing to consider is family culture.

When our family culture is established, healthy, and supportive with open dialogue then we can address things like how they’re doing in school and issues like social anxiety, insomnia, and peer pressure for which they might be gravitating toward cannabis. These are essentially the philosophies that I outline in my book, Cannabis Consulting.

How do we approach a drug like cannabis, society, and young people if we can’t definitively prove that it hurts them? By being supportive for those kids.

In my practice as a cannabis consultant, parents bring their young adults because they’re worried that their children are using too much cannabis and they don’t fully understand it. So, I help them understand it. I disentangle recreational use from medical use and then we determine if there’s something that can better help their ailments without succumbing to the ritualistic use of cannabis.

I’ve seen kids who are really healthy, who have goals, who are excited about learning and moving on with their life, and they smoke pot on a regular basis. The kids who feel disengaged from their families, school, and from life in general can succumb to the negative aspects of cannabis, which is essentially that the cannabis makes them feel like they’re just fine so they don’t need to move forward in their life.

In short, the debate is not settled about how cannabis affects the brain. I don’t think it’s going to be in this generation or perhaps in the next generation. So, it’s really important that you find a professional who understands cannabis, understands the benefits and downfalls of cannabis, and to work with your friends and family to complete a nurturing environment for your teens who are healthily moving forward in their life. The kids who are doing great self-exploration, are healthy with cannabis use, and doing great in their studies should be allowed to have that natural experimentation. The kids who need extra support and services and nurturing should be monitored more closely.

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