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Marijuana is going mainstream…but does that make it safe?

Six insights all parents should know

Six insights all parents should know about marijuana

As marijuana is made legal in more parts of the country, it’s becoming more normalized than ever before. And teens and young people have taken notice (despite most states’ attempts to limit exposure to young people). Now that it is deeply engrained in our culture, even parents might be wondering what’s the big deal if their children become regular marijuana users.

Dr. Larry Walker says it’s a big deal indeed. Teens who use cannabis are at risk for a range of serious mental and health-related problems.

“Parents and young people alike may believe that marijuana use is not problematic, but that couldn’t be further from the truth where teens and adolescents are concerned,” says Dr. Larry Walker, interim director of the National Center for Cannabis Research and Education (NCCRE) at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Mississippi. “Starting marijuana, especially in one’s early years, sets a pattern that can be devastating. We know enough to know that drug abuse in young people changes the way their brains develop.” 

Parents need to push back against the culture that convinces children that this addictive drug is safe, says Dr. Walker, who is the latest featured guest on The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, which serves as a single source of research-based guidance for parents, educators, and students. (Listen at https://themayolab.com and on Apple and Spotify.) Marijuana is more powerful—and often more dangerous and addictive—now than it was in recent decades.

Here are six insights parents should know about modern marijuana use and their children.

Street marijuana is far more potent than it used to be. Teens and young adults need to know that this isn’t your mother’s or your grandmother’s mild marijuana. Modern marijuana is far more potent. Dealers and experimenters are finding new ways to strengthen the drug and rapidly distribute it to the brain. Dr. Walker shares that since the early ’90s, the potency of marijuana, which was then running from 3 or 4 percent, is now approaching an average 20 percent (and many samples are much higher than that). 

There’s been almost a tenfold increase in the potency of marijuana, not to mention other changes that may be going on as we’re breeding the plants and selecting them. Someone who isn’t well accustomed to using modern marijuana is vulnerable to experiencing serious problems due to its potency alone.  


“Parents today have no idea what their children face using street marijuana,” says podcast host and student wellbeing activist David Magee, who, in his role as director of operations at the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing focuses on helping students with alcohol and other drug education and support. “And many students themselves are duped, unsure of what’s happening to them or why. I hear it all the time, and it’s the single most surprising thing I learn from so many students I get to engage with from throughout the country.”


Legal or not, marijuana can be highly addictive. Though it does not create dramatic withdrawal symptoms like heroin or crack, cannabis causes serious withdrawal symptoms, and many users are surprised to find that they cannot stop without professional help. Magee, whose late son William struggled with drug addiction before dying of an accidental drug overdose, recalls how marijuana slowly took over his son’s life.

“Some may not have physical withdrawals, but rather emotional withdrawal symptoms,” says Magee. “My son wrote journal entries describing how emotionally difficult it was for him to separate himself from marijuana. Because for him, it had become a ritual that began when he woke up, continued at midday, and concluded at night so he could go to sleep. And I hear the same things from students I talk to in middle schools and at colleges and universities. It becomes this daily part of their life that feels harmless. But over time it grows and takes them over.”

READ MORE: The 411 on marijuana use and cardiovascular health


There’s a link between marijuana use and mental health struggles. A number of studies show that there is an exaggerated incidence in mental health and mood disorders in teens who are chronic marijuana users. Young people are much more susceptible to issues that range from  depression, addiction problems, aggression, and schizophrenia, says Dr. Walker. 


Early marijuana users may struggle more later on in life. A study from New Zealand that has monitored the educational, economic, and social success, and mental health of marijuana users suggests that early users of the drug fare worse in adulthood in a number of areas. For example, they earn less money, have more family problems, have more addiction problems, have more societal adjustment problems, and perform worse on IQ tests. 


The lesson we can take from this is that we not only need to keep our children away from marijuana, says Dr. Walker, but also we need to educate and caution them about the associated risks of using this drug.


Marijuana isn’t the “magic cure” for anxiety that many believe it is… Marijuana is often touted as a treatment for various anxiety disorders, causing some parents to look the other way if their teen uses it for that reason. But Dr. Walker wants parents to know that while cannabis might alleviate anxiety symptoms in some people, it is far from being a silver bullet. “Marijuana may lower anxiety in some users, but in others, it can create an anxiogenic reaction,” he says. “This could be due to the users’ genetics, or the dose, or other factors.” Either way, it isn’t for everyone, and especially not for young people who may be struggling with their mental health. 
…And medical marijuana is problematic too. While marijuana does have some legitimate health benefits (such as easing nausea in cancer patients) there are still issues with making it legal. Overall, medical cannabis companies have limited medical oversight; the range of products is wide and very variable; some states have better programs than others; and there is little guidance available about dosing, management of patients, and treatment protocols. 

This can contribute to issues like unwanted side effects, abuse problems, and addiction problems in users, including young people. The bottom line: even if your child uses marijuana for a medical reason (for example, anxiety), they can still end up using too much or using it too often. 
“It's important that parents, teachers, and organization promoting health and wellness get on the same page about their messaging around marijuana,” concludes Dr. Walker. “It’s not about legality. Legal or not, today’s marijuana is unsafe for children, teens, and young adults. But understanding this truth is power. When young people and the people who love them know the truth, they can avoid going down a road that leads to suffering.”

Larry Walker is Interim Director of the National Center for Cannabis Research and Education, and Director Emeritus of the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi. He has been a member of the faculty of the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy for 41 years. A Tennessee native, he took undergraduate degrees in biology at Oglethorpe University (Atlanta, GA) and in pharmacy at Mercer University in Atlanta. His doctoral training was in Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

David Magee is the best-selling author of "Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis" and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss"—a "Publisher’s Weekly" bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s the creator and director of operations of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. He hosts "The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee".

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