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Marijuana Legalization Health Effects on Teens and Young Adults

A Rutgers psychiatrist discusses how states can minimize the health risks to young people when considering marijuana legalization

As more states pass laws legalizing marijuana use, health experts are voicing concern over the impact such legislation would have on young adults up to age 25. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost 70 percent of high school seniors do not view regular marijuana smoking as harmful and 44 percent report they have smoked marijuana at some point in their life – a figure that could rise as more laws are adopted.

Issues such as education, treatment and increased studies on how marijuana affects the developing brain should be addressed before laws are enacted, says Theodore Petti, a professor in Robert Wood Johnson Medical School’s Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. On September 6, the medical school, in conjunction with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, will host “Perspectives on Cannabis Legalization on Youth and Emerging Adults,” which will bring together a multidisciplinary group of practitioners to address issues related to the impact of further marijuana legalization and commercialization on adolescents and young adults.

Rutgers Today spoke to Petti, the conference organizer, about how states considering marijuana legalization take into account this younger population.

What are the most pressing concerns among health care providers in regard to the legalization of marijuana and young adults?

Petti: This legislation will promote increased acceptance that marijuana is harmless because it is legal. We have seen increases in marijuana use by youth in states that passed legislation with poor oversight, regulation and enforcement of law.

We also want to ensure that marijuana is available for research into conditions present in children and adolescents and for evidence-based treatment when appropriate for medical conditions. Currently, New Jersey allows use of marijuana for medical purposes in a tightly regulated fashion. Although some are critical that this tight regulation has limited the availability of marijuana for those who could benefit from its use, it also has resulted in a low rate of diversion to youth and others, who are turning instead to synthetic cannabinoids, such as K2 or Spice, or to marijuana that may be adulterated with PCP, formaldehyde or other toxic substances.

You say adolescents and young adults should know that the marijuana currently available is “not their parents’ marijuana.”

Petti: Young people think, “My parents used marijuana and turned out fine – what is the harm?” However, the potency has increased significantly since the legalization of medical marijuana in California in 1996. Coupled with the adulterated forms available today, marijuana use can result in significantly dangerous effects that in some cases cause irreversible harm.

Adulterated marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids can contain substances that cause seizures, severe agitation, aggression, hallucinations and other symptoms of psychosis, which can predispose vulnerable youth to schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. This is a vulnerable period in brain development, which also predisposes individuals to addiction and substance use disorder.

We can learn from states where marijuana has gone through the evolution of availability for medical purposes with few restrictions and easy access. Diversion of marijuana to youth from eligible purchasers has been inadequately addressed and leads to easy access for young people, who are showing up in the emergency room.

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