While society is becoming increasingly accepting of cannabis both medically and recreationally, and discussions around legalization are becoming more frequent, cannabis is not a strictly safe or harmless substance. There are clear dangers around its use, especially recreationally and especially for younger adults and teens. Despite its potential in treating nausea during chemotherapy and the host of benefits we may see through more research, long-term cannabis use is still destructive. It may impact both a teen’s cognitive and physical health.
Weighing the Dangers of Cannabis
Cannabis is a psychoactive drug with the potential for addiction and a host of long-term health issues associated with excessive and chronic use. While millions of Americans can use the drug occasionally and put it back down without any significant drawbacks, there are indications that it is not safe for everyone, and using the drug over years and decades may lead to a host of physical and psychological issues.
Some of the health issues associated with cannabis can be attributed to its psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol. However, cannabis also contains many other cannabinoids that bind to receptors in the body and affect cognitive function, heart function, and even bone health. The most significant risks associated with cannabis aside from addiction are an increased potential for symptoms of psychosis (as well as stronger symptoms in patients with psychotic disorders) and potential links to adverse long-term effects on cognition and long-term memory.
Whether or not cannabis is dangerous can depend on the quality and source of the drug, the method with which it is consumed (is it smoked along with tobacco? Consumed as an oil? Taken through a vape?), the frequency and degree to which cannabis is used, and individual factors such as a person’s hereditary risk factors towards addiction and drug use, and co-occurring mental health issues that might compound with cannabis use and worsen because of it.
Can Marijuana Use Lead to Addiction?
There is no question about whether cannabis can cause an addiction, where addiction is used to describe a substance use disorder characterized by continued use despite a negative impact on several aspects of one’s life and an inability to stop using without support, even when committed to quitting. Dependence, which includes withdrawal symptoms, is also commonly associated with a substance use disorder.
The question may be at what point long-term use becomes an addiction, how quickly cannabis can cause addiction (i.e., how addictive it is), and what risk factors specifically influence the risk of cannabis addiction. Data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse suggests that up to 30 percent of people who use the drug may be diagnosed with cannabis use disorder. In particular, teens are four to seven times more likely to develop an addiction than adults.
Part of the reason why cannabis is potentially more addictive than it may have been in the past is that, due to the growing international market for the drug, as well as more significant investments in the development of stronger strains and better highs, the THC content within the cannabis has steadily increased for decades. Cannabis confiscated in the 1990s had a THC level of about 4 percent – this has since more than tripled to about 15 percent in 2018.
Depending on how cannabis is consumed, certain forms of consumption lead to greater THC bioavailability than others. While there are many other cannabinoids in cannabis, such as cannabidiol, THC is the ingredient responsible for the high and most often linked to addiction.
Signs of Teen Cannabis Use Disorder
The signs and symptoms that should be watched out for the most are increased resistance to the drug’s effects at the same dose and using more cannabis over time. Lack of will to stop using despite the negative impact on one’s social life and performance at work or school is another potential sign. Cannabis addiction is much more likely to occur in teens who:
- Have trouble forming social connections
- Lack a list of responsibilities or close relationships
- Struggle with mental health issues
Drugs like alcohol and cannabis can act like magic bullets for a first-time drug user struggling with depression or anxiety – they make you feel better, help your worries melt away, or help you feel at ease. But these effects do not last for very long and are repeated, and long-term use can have severe consequences. Specific conditions that seem most likely to be linked to cannabis use disorder include:
Long-Term Effects of Teen Cannabis Use
The long-term effects of teen cannabis use are still being researched, but preliminary research reveals that long-term use of the drug can lead to:
Cannabis’s long-term cognitive effects primarily consist of memory problems, the capacity to learn, and impulse control. Interestingly, different results are observed depending on whether the drug was used for the first time or over long periods. Additionally, cannabis has been linked to developing stronger symptoms of psychosis, particularly in patients with the following mental health conditions (but not limited to):
- Brief psychotic disorder
- Schizoaffective disorder
- Schizotypal personality disorder
When no signs of psychosis were present previously, the condition is called a substance-induced psychotic disorder. Psychosis is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, dissociation, and odd/disordered thinking. It can be described as losing touch with reality.
Depending on how the drug is ingested, cannabis can cause respiratory problems, including lung cancer, either through smoke inhalation or the long-term effects of a vaping-associated lung injury.
Addressing Teen Cannabis Use Disorder
If your teen is struggling to quit using cannabis or wants to useless and cannot, seeking professional help as early as possible may be the most effective way to combat the problem. Teen substance use disorders are best addressed through a combination of inpatient or outpatient treatment, which can include:
- Detox and time spent in a drug-free environment
- One-on-one and group therapy
- Family therapy
Cannabis use disorder treatment can help teens develop an individualized toolset for identifying and addressing urges and cravings constructively through healthier coping mechanisms and a robust support system composed of friends, family, and community leaders.