Since the start of the state-legal cannabis push began in earnest back in the 1990s, certain medical experts have been warning that cannabis consumption among adolescents and teens is a bad idea. They have insisted that cannabis affects still developing brains in ways it could be harmful. A 2021 study published by JAMA Psychiatry seems to provide proof.
The study was conducted by looking at nearly 1,600 MRI images of the brains of 799 cannabis users. Researchers learned two very important things:
- Cannabis seems to have a detrimental impact on young people from 14-19 years of age.
- It seems to have a positive impact on older adults.
Cannabis consumption among young people appears to contribute to “accelerated age-related cortical thinning.” In other words, certain areas of the brain rich in cannabinoid 1 receptors tend to lose mass when teens use cannabis consistently. Unfortunately, the study participants in which this was observed showed no meaningful improvement at 5-year follow-up. The thinning seems to be permanent.
Concerns about adolescent marijuana use are not new. They have been around for a long time. That’s why states with legalized cannabis programs are careful when it comes to kids. Lawmakers do not want adolescents to smoke marijuana recreationally. But there is also concern in the medical market.
Medical cannabis pharmacies in Utah are not allowed to sell products to just anyone. Customers must possess a valid medical cannabis card to purchase. Let us say a parent walked into the Beehive Farmacy in Salt Lake City hoping to purchase medications for a minor child. Both parent and child must have a valid card.
Furthermore, the child’s card can only be obtained with approval from Utah’s Compassionate Use Board. Without such approval, minors cannot get cards. The board is very particular about issuing cards to minors as well. They need to be convinced that cannabis is the most appropriate treatment for a child’s medical condition in order to green light a card application.
One study does not make a scientific theory fact. However, every study that reaches the same conclusions on a particular question points toward the answer. Such is the case with the 2021 study referenced in this post. It simply adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting adolescents should not use cannabis.
The main concern is that still developing teen brains could be permanently damaged by THC exposure. The damage could be anything from reduced cognitive ability to poor memory to a lack of critical thinking skills. If such damage occurs and is permanent, a young person could experience a drastically different life in adulthood than would have otherwise been the case.
Admittedly, there is still plenty more to learn about cannabis and its effects on developing teen brains. But for now, the data seems clear enough. Even if concerns have not been proven entirely, there is enough evidence to suggest they are legitimate.
In closing, it is important to briefly mention that the same study seems to indicate that cannabis can actually help older people. How? By encouraging more neural connections in the brain. Moderate cannabis use could help older people maintain cognition and memory for longer. But that, too, needs further study.
A growing body of evidence points to the fact that cannabis harms adolescent brains. As the country forges ahead with nationwide legalization, we need to keep in mind that cannabis could be just as bad for teens as alcohol. We need to treat it the same way in everything from education to prohibition.