For 15 years, Heather Eshleman has traveled throughout Anne Arundel County, talking with students about the dangers of marijuana. But a few years ago, she noticed a change in their attitudes toward the drug.
“The pro-marijuana talk has definitely increased,” the prevention supervisor for the county health department says. “I don’t ever remember people being so pro-marijuana before. I’ve had kids argue with me at the Anne Arundel Community College health fair, saying, ‘Why are you saying that marijuana is bad? It’s totally fine.’”
But for young and developing minds, it’s not fine, local substance abuse experts say.
As states and cities across the U.S. relax marijuana laws for medicinal and recreational use, the experts are concerned teens are getting the wrong message about the drug and its severity.
“A lot of young people are using marijuana now over alcohol,” says Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree, a nonprofit based in Columbia. “That is their drug of choice. … They see marijuana use as far less dangerous in the long run than alcohol or any other illegal drug.”
Some even see it as safe and therapeutic, experts say. Yet studies show the drug is more potent than ever and can lead to both short- and long-term health problems for teens. That’s why as the marijuana laws continue to change, parents and students need to learn about the risks, experts say.
“What scares me is that students hear of the law changes and may interpret this to mean that marijuana is not a drug or that marijuana is safe to smoke,” says Chad Bickel, school counselor at South River High School.
Changing laws and perceptions
Marijuana laws vary by state. Several states allow medical use of the drug, and in 2012, Colorado became one of the first states to legalize recreational use. In Washington, D.C., possession of small amounts of marijuana is legal for adults ages 21 and older. And in Maryland, adults 21 and older will face civil (not criminal) charges if they possess 10 grams or less of marijuana.
Even though Maryland hasn’t gone as far as Colorado, local residents’ perception of marijuana risk is still affected when laws in other states change, says Amelia Arria, associate professor of behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
“Whenever you change the access and availability at a national level in a modern society, word gets out that it’s happening,” she says. “And the perception of risk, that it is harmful to use either occasionally or regularly, has gone down. Those policies, no matter where they are, transcend geographic boundaries.”
Legal or not, teens’ perceptions of the drug are also changing.
In 2013, the Anne Arundel County Department of Health conducted a substance abuse consumption and perception survey of county residents ages 12 to 20. Fourteen percent of those surveyed had used marijuana within the past 30 days, compared to 12 percent who used cigarettes. The survey also found 49 percent of those surveyed perceived either “no risk” or a “slight risk” of personal physical or other harm when people smoked marijuana.
According to the more recent 2014 Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Study, 18.8 percent of Maryland high school students surveyed used marijuana within the past 30 days — an incremental increase over 2005. Locally, those admitting to having used the drug in the past 30 days included 21 percent of Anne Arundel County high school students, 18.7 percent of Calvert County high school students, 13.4 percent of Howard County high school students, 18 percent of Prince George’s County high school students and 22.7 percent of Queen Anne’s County high school students.
“Some just see it as an every other day thing that’s part of their lives,” says Ethan Simon, 17, a junior at Glenelg High School in Glenelg and member of the HC DrugFree Teen Advisory Council. “Others see it as a demon where they’re never going to have contact with it. I have friends who would never use it at all. Then I have friends who use it weekly.”
In his experience, Simon says peer groups impact teen marijuana usage more than legal changes.
Teens rationalize use
Teens who use marijuana have been much more open and honest about it in recent years, says Mandy Larkins, supervisor of prevention education and family wellness at Pathways, Anne Arundel Medical Center’s drug and alcohol treatment center.
“They’re not ashamed by it,” she says. “They think it’s OK.”
Students’ justifications for using marijuana range from “It’s just a natural plant” and “You can’t die from it” to “They’re going to legalize it, so it must be OK,” experts say.
“I don’t think they think it is hurting them at all,” says Lauren Greer, 17, a junior at Howard High School in Ellicott City who is also a member of the HC DrugFree Teen Advisory Council. “They just do it because they like it.”
At times, Lauren tries to explain the damage marijuana can do to teens’ developing brains. But often, her fellow students don’t agree, she says.
“They say, ‘I don’t care that it hurts me. I want to do it because I want to do it.’ It’s really hard to make them stop,” she says.
Larkin feels that legalization is definitely an issue because students are getting mixed messages.
“I’ve had kids say things like, ‘Marijuana cures cancer,’” she says. Yet when she presses them for scientific facts, most students come up short.
“What’s happening is, they’re rationalizing it,” Larkins says. “They’ll try to figure out a way to make it OK that they’re doing it — (such as) ‘So, I’m not doing heroin. It’s better than alcohol.’ It’s constantly, ‘At least I’m not doing this, so I’m going to do this.’”
The dangers to youth
Today’s marijuana is much stronger than that used in the 1970s — and even the 1990s, experts say.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), also known as cannabis, is the part of marijuana that causes the “high.” According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a recent analysis of cannabis samples confiscated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration “showed a steady increase in THC content, from 4 percent to 12 percent between 1995 and 2014.”
This higher level increases the risk of adverse effects and the potential for addiction, according to an April American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report. In the report, authors also state:
Teens’ recreational use of the drug can lead to impaired short-term memory and decreased concentration, attention span and problem-solving skills — all of which impact learning. It can also lead to changes in motor control, coordination, judgment, reaction time and tracking ability.
Long-term marijuana use, started in adolescence, has negative effects on intellectual function, and a 2012 study concluded that “the deficits in cognitive areas, such as executive function and processing speed, did not recover by adulthood, even when cannabis was discontinued.”
Of those experimenting with marijuana, 9 percent will become addicted. That jumps to 17 percent for those who started using the drug in adolescence.
At Pathways, staff members ask patients how old they were and what drug they used when they started.
“Typically it’s between the ages of 13 and 15, and it’s either cigarettes, marijuana or alcohol,” Larkins says. “Anytime you are putting anything mind altering in, you’re putting yourself at risk for addiction. Science proven. There’s no arguing.”
Still, some parents say marijuana use is “no big deal,” they “turn their heads” when their teens use it, or even use the drug themselves, Larkins says.
“If you’re an adult, we can have a different conversation,” she says. “But no teenager should be smoking weed, period. It’s going to be a game changer for them.”
What parents can do
Lauren turned to her school counselor for guidance when she had concerns about how many of her peers were using marijuana, she says.
That’s just one of the routes teens and parents can take to understand the consequences of using marijuana, as well as changing perceptions and laws around the drug, experts say.
“If a parent is concerned about their child using drugs, they should absolutely reach out for help,” Bickel says.
Pediatricians, who can screen for drug use during checkups, and county health departments are also valuable resources. The Anne Arundel County Health Department offers free educational materials as well as treatment referral and crisis response lines for families in need.
But the most important thing parents can do is talk with their children, experts say.
“Parents should never give up having really good conversations, not necessarily to educate their children about the risks but to explain their clear disapproval and give reasons for that,” Arria says. “Put a more positive spin on it and say, ‘I realize you have a lot of potential, a lot of interests you want to pursue. Drug use, alcohol use, tobacco use, it all gets in the way.’”
Even parents in recovery can do this, she says. There’s no need to hide their past because they can explain how they learned from it, she says.
“If parents are less vigilant or turn a blind eye toward a drug like marijuana, then their kids are more likely to get involved with it,” Arria says. “We know from research that parental supervision, knowing whereabouts and activities, total disapproval of all substances…will be protective. It’s not a guarantee, but it will be protective.”
Scornaienchi agrees. “Keep talking,” she says. “And educate yourself. Kids can do that battle with parents, try to beat them down. And parents think their kids aren’t listening. … But I can tell you, most kids do listen. They do hear.”
Maryland’s marijuana laws
In recent years, Maryland has changed some of its laws regarding marijuana possession. According to David Zwanetz, a criminal defense lawyer and partner with Shapiro, Zwanetz and Associates in Columbia, here’s where the laws stand as of May 2017:
- Possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana is a civil infarction similar to that of a traffic ticket.
- People under age 21 who are found to have less than 10 grams will be issued a fine and must attend a drug education program.
- Anyone found with 10.5 grams or more could face time in jail.
- Possession of marijuana paraphernalia and smoking marijuana in public are also civil offenses, punishable by up to a $500 fine.
- Distribution of marijuana is a felony charge, regardless of a person’s age. So technically, any time teens share their marijuana with friends, they are committing a felony and could face up to five years in prison.
By Allison Eatough