Twenty-five years ago, I was among the Newsweek staffers who reported on the "war on drugs." The magazine labeled related stories with a special red-and-black logo that ominously read, "The Drug Crisis." Today that battle seems to have petered out, even though the number of teens using illicit substances (mainly pot) is increasing. So much for those scary health class lectures about marijuana: More than a third of high school students have tried it anyway, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey.
Why? A good guess: Kids hear that 15 states now allow the use of marijuana for medical reasons and conclude that pot is almost healthy. In December the national Monitoring the Future Survey — conducted by the University of Michigan and sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse — found that fewer teens disapprove of cannibas and see danger associated with it.
And new studies that show potentially dire consequences to smoking weed fail to generate much hue and cry. Yesterday the American Medical Association's Archives of General Psychiatry journal published an alarming (to me, at least) study that looked at 83 studies with more than 20,000 participants and found marijuana may even cause psychosis. Goodness. "The results suggest the need for renewed warnings about the potentially harmful effects of cannabis," conclude the authors.
It's unclear why pot may cause psychosis in some users, but a substance in it may trigger the illness, lead author Matthew Large tells me. "This is by far and away the most likely situation," he says. "It has been suggested that there is something in cannabis that interferes with brain development for some people. This seems the most likely. And there is a suggestion that a genetic variant that is otherwise harmless, a variant of the COMT [catechol-O-methyltransferase] gene, makes some people more vulnerable."
Do you really want your kids to run their own unofficial experiment to see if pot smoking can, indeed, cause psychosis? No.
Even though the war on drugs seems to have taken a back seat to other issues, you can still wage your own battle. For starters, you can avoid smoking pot yourself. Some kids "think it is OK because mum and dad did this," says Large.
Treat pot like a big deal. "I don't know if parents regard smoking weed with the proper respect it deserves," says Daniel Levy, a developmental pediatrician who sits on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on communications and media. "The combination of the by-products of smoking and the THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] have terrible and long-lasting effects on both the lung and central nervous system. Couple that with the fact that pot is vastly stronger now than it was when I was a kid. And there is no way to assay what is cut in with it, and you have a dangerous and unpredictable situation."
Your kids may tune out the health lesson, which they also get in school. But you can still hammer home one big point: pot is illegal. Say, "I don't want you to get saddled with some marijuana problem that's going to get in your way in life," says psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?"The reality is it's illegal now. You're toying with something that can have big consequences legally for your life, get in the way of college or the military. Why take that risk?"
Teach your kids to talk, not toke. Help them learn how to manage emotions, comfort themselves, and relax in healthy ways. Encourage them to talk about emotions, play their guitar, or write in a journal. "The things we get in trouble with in life are so often related to the ways we've learned to comfort ourselves, whether it's using alcohol or escaping into a video game or pornography or gambling," says Hindy. "If you become more and more focused on one way of coping in life, it can have negative consequences that can cause a vicious cycle."
Finally, remember that pot impairs judgment on the road and can cause drowsiness — not a good combination for new teen drivers. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes, marijuana can distort perceptions and impair coordination — and may cause everyday smokers to function "at a suboptimal intellectual level all the time." That's not what you want for your kids, is it?
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