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Marijuana and the Brain: Are Adolescents At Risk?


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Marijuana, also known as weed, pot, cannabis, herb, grass, bud, and more, is a psychoactive drug sourced from the cannabis plant. This plant is native to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. For many years, marijuana has been used both therapeutically and recreationally. Today, the recreational use of this drug is legal in 18 states and 13 additional states have decriminalized its use. 

Across these numerous states, there are dispensaries that distribute marijuana. Depending on which state you’re in, the rules for obtaining cannabis from these stores are different. In some states, all you need is a driver’s license or government ID, however, in other states, you need to get an approved medical card through a physician. But, no matter where you live, the availability of weed has increased. 

This increase in both the availability of marijuana as well as the decriminalization of it has made its use rise over the last decade. In fact, according to a Gallup Poll and article in U.S. News and World Report, about 49% of American adults have tried marijuana at least one time. Just 50 years ago, the number of Americans 18 years and older who had tried weed was just 4%. 

When it comes to youth in America, the percentage who say they smoke pot is growing too. Of those in the Generation X group, 10% report smoking weed regularly. However, the Millennials report an even higher rate of cannabis consumption with 20% of this generation reporting they smoke marijuana regularly. 

Weed has been touted for its relaxation, anxiety-relieving, and pain-reducing abilities. However, there has been rising concern in regards to youth and adolescents who are smoking weed. While the effects of smoking weed on adolescents aren’t fully understood, research shows that it can detrimentally impact the developing brain of youth. 

Weed and The Brain

The main component in marijuana that causes the relaxing and euphoric effects is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol more commonly known as THC. This chemical component found in weed is in the bud or flowers it produces as well as in resin produced by the leaves and buds. In addition to THC, there are another 500 chemicals in weed and about 100 compounds related to cannabis called cannabinoids. These compounds produce varied effects in users. 

And there are a lot of marijuana users across the nation—particularly amongst vulnerable youth. 

Youth and Weed Consumption 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), reports that in 2018, 11.8 million American youth reported using marijuana in the past year. This number is steadily growing along with the younger age groups using it more than ever before. Reports also show that a staggering 4% of all twelfth graders say they smoke weed daily. The advent and popularity of vaping and the ability to use vape pens more inconspicuously have made it easier to indulge in marijuana. In addition, the legalization (to one degree or another) in numerous states has made weed more readily available. And while youth are unable to purchase marijuana without a parent’s consent, they are more able to get it from others than ever before. 

As mentioned, weed can be consumed by smoking it via vape pens. It can also be smoked in paper (joints or blunts) as well as through glass pipes or water bubblers. In addition, today, there are edibles sold so that individuals can consume weed through food and beverages. Not only is it easier to get marijuana today, it’s also much easier to consume it. 

When marijuana is smoked, the chemicals and compounds enter the body via the lungs and go into the bloodstream. From there, the THC and other active chemicals are quickly carried to the brain. Effects are felt almost immediately with smoking. If weed is consumed via foods and drinks, it can take about 30 minutes to one hour for the effects to begin. This is because with this method of consumption it must pass through the digestive system. In some cases, this delay in effects can cause the user to consume more and then end up having more in their bodies than they’d like. 

How Marijuana Affects the Body

The effects of smoking weed can vary from person to person as well as from batch to batch of weed. Each has different amounts of THC. In addition, marijuana contains different terpenes. These terpenes vary and each can cause different effects. Today, the potency of weed can be very high. Some of the most common effects of smoking weed are: 

  • Relaxation
  • Euphoria
  • Mood changes
  • Altered senses
  • Altered time perception
  • Impaired body movement
  • Decreased ability to problem solve
  • Impaired memory
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

In addition to these short-term effects, long-term use of marijuana can result in the following: 

  • Impaired driving and an increased risk of accidents
  • Increased rates of respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis
  • Increased risk of chronic psychosis disorders
  • Increased risk of anxiety disorders
  • Increased risk of depression
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Increased risk of developing cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (extreme nausea and vomiting)

What Happens When Adolescents Smoke Marijuana?

When it comes to youth and marijuana, there are much greater risks. If a person starts consuming weed in their youth they have an increased risk of many detrimental effects. It’s important to note that scientists say that the brain doesn’t reach full development until about the age of 24 years. Using marijuana or any drug before that time can impede brain development. Many of these consequences are irreversible. 

The way marijuana works in the brain is through endogenous cannabinoids like anandamide. These chemicals have a very similar structure to naturally occurring neurotransmitters in the brain. The brain recognizes this structure and then acts on signals being sent from these chemicals from marijuana. NIDA explains how weed then attaches to the brain’s neurons in this way:

“Because of this similarity, THC is able to attach to molecules called cannabinoid receptors on neurons in these brain areas and activate them, disrupting various mental and physical functions and causing the effects described earlier. The neural communication network that uses these cannabinoid neurotransmitters, known as the endocannabinoid system, plays a critical role in the nervous system’s normal functioning, so interfering with it can have profound effects.”

These profound effects are more significant for youth. 

In addition to acting on the brain in this way, THC also activates the brain’s reward systems. This leads to the release of dopamine. Dopamine is one of the ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain. When dopamine is released naturally, it brings on pleasant feelings from a behavior such as eating or having sex. When dopamine is released in large surges from drug use such as marijuana, it can result in the brain slowing its own natural dopamine production. This can lead to the user needing to smoke weed in order to get those same previously naturally occurring feelings of pleasure. As this occurs, the brain begins to become dependent on weed. As use continues and tolerance grows the individual needs to consume more just to feel normal. This is where addiction begins to take hold.  The adolescent brain is much more vulnerable to becoming addicted.

When it comes to youth, the impacts on the brain are of concern. 

In general, research has shown that regular marijuana use by anyone can lead to the following: 

  • Impaired thinking and cognitive abilities
  • Impaired ability to problem solve
  • Impaired ability to learn
  • Impaired ability to do complex tasks

However, the adolescent brain is far more detrimentally impacted. There is evidence that suggests that some of these issues caused in the brain are permanent. This is particularly true when the individual begins consuming weed before their brain has fully developed. These include: 

  • Decreased cognitive abilities
  • Decreased IQ
  • Issues with learning (continuing later in life)
  • Issues with memory (continuing later in life)
  • Functional and structural changes in the hippocampus
  • Altered reward system (making the user more likely to use drugs)
  • Reduced brain volume in certain areas (memory, learning, impulse control)
  • Decreased verbal IQ

It’s important to understand when it comes to marijuana and the adolescent brain the effects can be long-lasting and cause significant issues down the road. As the brain is still developing, the changes that occur from weed use can detrimentally impact its ability to develop properly. 

One of the biggest concerns with this is the adolescent brain’s reward circuit. Studies indicate that when this reward circuit is hijacked by early drug use including marijuana, youth are more vulnerable to becoming addicted to drugs. In addition, when tolerance begins at a younger age, the user may seek out other, more dangerous drugs to get that same initial high that has become elusive. It’s vital to understand that the teen brain can become more quickly addicted to marijuana than the adult or even college-aged brain. 

There is no conclusive evidence on what the specific effects of smoking marijuana are in youth or in adulthood. As mentioned, the short-term effects vary by strain to strain and also person to person. One thing is certain, consuming weed or any drug at an earlier age before the brain has fully developed can hurt the youth of our nation. It’s imperative to educate youth about these long-term and possibly permanent effects of smoking weed on the teen and adolescent brain. 

If you or someone you love is using marijuana, alcohol, or another substance and you’re concerned contact Futures Recovery Healthcare. At Futures, we compassionately treat adults with alcohol use disorders, substance use disorders, and mental health issues like mood disorders and anxiety disorders. Contact us online to learn more about our addiction treatment and mental health programs or call us at 866-804-2098.


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