By: Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP
Marijuana has been in the news a lot these days, with more and more states making it legal to use it for medical reasons, and some making it legal to use it for any reason. And while there has been disagreement about these laws, there is one thing that all of us can agree on:
As legal decisions are made about marijuana, we need to think about the health and well-being of our youth.
That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released an updated policy statement, "The Impact of Marijuana Policies on Youth: Clinical, Research and Legal Update," and technical report with research and information about marijuana. In this time when so many policy decisions about marijuana are being made, it's crucial that everyone understands the impact on youth.
Marijuana use is remarkably common among youth in the US. According to surveys, about 1 in 5 high school students has used it in the past month. Even more concerning, 1 in 12 has used it at least 20 times in the past month, and 1 in 16 uses it daily.
The AAP believes youth should not use marijuana
There is a popular perception that marijuana isn't dangerous—but it is dangerous, both in the short term and the long term.
It interferes with judgment, concentration, reaction time and coordination in ways that can make youth more likely to get into car crashes or otherwise injure themselves while using it.
The ways that it interferes with brain functions such as memory, attention and problem-solving can make it much harder for youth to learn and succeed in school.
Contrary to what many people think, it can be addictive.
Inhaling the smoke can cause lung problems.
New research shows that marijuana use during adolescence and young adulthood, when the brain is going through many important changes, can lead to permanent problems with memory, learning and thinking.
Youth who use marijuana regularly are less likely to finish high school or get other degrees, more likely to use other drugs, and more likely to try to commit suicide.
That's why it's really important that laws prevent youth from buying marijuana. Even more, we need to do everything possible to prevent them from using it or being exposed to it.
Parents, relatives, and other caregivers should not use marijuana around children, both for safety reasons and role-modeling reasons.
Banning any marijuana marketing to youth.
Making sure that there is child-safe packaging and other safety measures.
Creating public health campaigns like the ones we've used against smoking.
The AAP believes the penalties for using marijuana shouldn't ruin a child's future
Hundreds of thousands of youth have been arrested or put in jail for using marijuana. Having a criminal record can make it hard or impossible to get college loans, financial aid, housing and certain kinds of jobs.
While the AAP does not believe that marijuana use should be legal, it does believe that it should be decriminalized so that penalties for marijuana-related offenses are reduced to lesser criminal charges or civil penalties. Our efforts should go into prevention and treatment, not locking kids up; we want to give our youth a good future instead of taking it away.
If marijuana is used as a medicine, the AAP believes it must be done carefully—and with research to understand all of its effects
The AAP believes in using the usual Food and Drug Administration (FDA) processes instead of "medical marijuana" laws. The FDA has a long track record of being sure that medicines are safe and effective (and are dispensed and sold safely); that's what we need if we want to use marijuana as a medication.
We also need more research on the use and safety of marijuana in youth. While studies have shown the chemicals in marijuana do seem to help people with chronic pain, as well as the nausea, vomiting and appetite problems that are common in cancer, the studies were all done in adults. Youth are different from adults—and may react differently to marijuana. We need to find ways to fund this research and make it easier to do, so that we can really understand everything about how marijuana affects our youth.
Our first responsibility in everything we do as parents and caregivers should be to our children—because they rely on us to keep them safe and well, and because they are our future. Marijuana policies are no different. Let's be careful, thoughtful, and keep our children in mind.
About Dr. McCarthy
Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications, and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Along with serving on the HealthyChildren.org Editorial Advisory Board, she writes about health and parenting for Boston.com and Huffington Post.