An excerpt from A Parent’s Guide to Teen Addiction: Professional Advice on Signs, Symptoms, What to Say, and How to Help (Skyhorse Publishing; October 2017).
Marijuana, the illegal drug most commonly used by teenagers, is widely accepted as harmless, but is it? Its effects range from the trivial—silliness, bloodshot eyes, etc.—all the way to catastrophic—paranoia, depression, and more. Many teenagers and parents don’t realize that although not as potent, it’s a hallucinogen similar to LSD and Ecstasy. Marijuana and the other hallucinogens can cause serious problems for teenagers who use them: The drugs can make them hear and see potentially dangerous things that aren’t there, and can loosen or completely wipe out the user’s grip on reality.
However it’s used, marijuana normally causes symptoms such as silliness, difficulty walking, bloodshot eyes, and memory problems. Taken heavily or recurrently over a long period of time, marijuana can bring about paranoia, lack of motivation, depression, and profound fatigue. It’s fairly easy to spot a teenage marijuana user.
You’ve heard a lot of talk about what marijuana is and is not. Some people claim that it’s a “gateway” to harder drugs, and a lot of teenagers agree. While it’s true that almost all users of hard drugs first used marijuana, alcohol, and cigarettes, we can’t say that those substances are to blame for their leap to harder drugs. Whether or not marijuana use influences later drug use, it’s certainly true that kids who try marijuana at a young age have an attitude towards drugs that might point toward future trouble. 2014 MTF research shows that 59 percent of 8th graders think smoking marijuana regularly is risky—but that means 41 percent see no great risk. Between 2008 and 2014 there was a marked decrease in the risk that 8th graders attached to regular marijuana use – with the (naturally) corresponding increase in actual use. If your teenager uses marijuana, it is indeed a risk factor for progressing on to other drugs, but that outcome isn’t a sure thing. Don’t panic! The vast majority of teenagers who use marijuana or alcohol never have serious trouble with either, nor do they move on to other substances. I don’t mean to minimize the dangers of marijuana use, only to encourage you to look at these dangers realistically. You’re better off ignoring the gateway drug question when deciding how to help your teenager. Of more concern is the harm marijuana might be doing to your teenager right now and the possibility that he’s knowingly or unknowingly taking other drugs that might be added to the marijuana.
Some people look at marijuana from the opposite point of view, claiming that it’s a valuable remedy for various health problems. Marijuana probably does have some medical benefits, but there’s no good evidence that they outweigh its risks. California, one of the states that have legalized medical marijuana, even allows people with minor complaints—such as difficulty sleeping—to obtain marijuana legally through a network of licensed growers and vendors. Patient advocacy groups and others are pushing for the legalization of marijuana on the state and national level, but no responsible party is in favor of making marijuana legally available to minors. Regardless, this is another debate you don’t need to have with your marijuana-using teenager!
Is there such a thing as marijuana withdrawal?
Short answer: Yes! Anyone who tells you that quitting marijuana is no sweat is misinformed: Withdrawal produces a whole host of symptoms, including irritability and difficulties with sleep. Numerous scientific studies over the past 15 years have authoritatively identified the medical phenomenon of marijuana withdrawal, and have shown its similarities to withdrawal from substances like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. The 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used by mental health professionals has added marijuana withdrawal to the list of other drug withdrawal syndromes.
Even so, some marijuana users doubt the reality of withdrawal. Sure, it’s no fun to stop smoking, and the uncomfortable symptoms may explain why your teenager keeps going back to marijuana after he’s stopped using it. He thinks it’s the marijuana that makes him feel better, but in fact his relief stems from coming out of withdrawal.The most important thing about marijuana withdrawal is that it can be treated. Although not physically dangerous, the symptoms of withdrawal should be managed to improve your teenager’s chances of kicking the habit. An experienced physician can prescribe medication to minimize the physical misery of withdrawal while convincing your teenager that his symptoms will fade away and teaching him self-soothing strategies for dealing with his discomfort. Once he realizes that his doctor understands his symptoms and can treat them, and that they will disappear with time, he’ll probably be able to tolerate withdrawal more easily.
Your best course of action
If you discover that your teenager uses marijuana, I have three main pieces of advice for you. First, take a deep breath and count to ten. I mean this quite literally. You need to take in the fact that your darling child, whom you love, whom you’ve nurtured and protected, has been using an illegal substance in direct defiance of your rules and her own promise to abide by those rules. Not good. This is a very valuable moment to give yourself a time-out, so that you can step back and orient yourself to the task at hand: finding out what’s going on and helping your teenager. It also gives you and your spouse or partner a chance to put your heads together and figure out how to respond; two heads are better than one in a crisis.
Laurence M. Westreich is an addiction psychiatrist and author of A Parent’s Guide to Teen Addiction: Professional Advice on Signs, Symptoms, What to Say, and How to Help.
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