Teens and Pot

You caught your teenager with pot in her possession, or you got wind of its distinctive aroma in her room. Let’s say you immediately confronted her about it; perhaps you punished her, too. Still, your suspicion is that her use continues.

Should I worry? In brief, if your child is age 16 or younger, and /or there’s a history of mental illness in your family, you have good cause to be concerned.

According to the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future Survey, marijuana use by American adolescents, especially eighth and tenth graders, is trending upward for the third year in a row, reversing a decline tracked since 1992. Two other even more worrisome trends were reported in the survey. The age of first time marijuana users is dropping, and fewer teenagers believe there are health risks associated with their use of marijuana.

That these trends are present when so much existing scientific research points to the complicity of marijuana in triggering first episodes of psychosis in teenagers is terrifying. Or it should be.

One possible reason for the apparent widespread ignorance by teens (and their parents) may be the media’s general failure to distinguish between adolescents and adults when they report on marijuana use and its dangers. This type of oversimplified coverage has increased as medical marijuana is legalized in some states, and as state and local campaigns rev up to give marijuana the same legal status as alcohol.

Pot and Psychosis

Before we jump into pro or con camps on such issues, it behooves us to take a closer look at the science. It is true that the relative numbers of teens who smoke pot and develop psychotic symptoms is relatively low; in some studies it’s put at 3 percent. But the risk then goes up to 10 percent or higher for those teens who are at a genetic risk for psychosis, that is, those who had a relative with a psychotic disease like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Which brings us to the other equally large obstacle for anyone personally trying to confront this issue. How are parents to assess their teenager’s risk when they don’t know their own family mental health history?

The reason for this lack of basic information about our ancestors, i.e., parents, grandparents and great-grandparents mental health has everything to do with the centuries’ old stigma associated with mental illness. Plus, the lack of proper diagnoses and treatment for these illnesses which while not so great today was far worse in past generations.

Not having this information necessarily turns us into amateur forensic psychologists. Was your great aunt’s fear of leaving the house just eccentricity? Was grandpa’s death at 28 really an accident? Or may there have been other factors at work in these or other dark family episodes that have been largely swept under the rug–as turned out to be the case in my family.

I wondered what I might have done differently after finding pot hidden in Alex’s bedroom when he was 14 had I had known how dangerous it was going to be for him. Certainly, I got angry. I grounded him for a month. But, to be honest, at the time I thought Alex’s marijuana smoking was the least of our problems. More troublesome, I thought, was the fact that he hadn’t done his homework in recent memory.

For more information on teen drug use, go to the University of Michigan MONITORING THE FUTURE SURVEY.

This article is drawn from research I did for my memoir, A Lethal Inheritance.

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