Not that it wasn’t predictable, but the federal government, fueled by new Monitoring the Future data collected by the University of Michigan on behalf of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is reporting a rise in the illicit use of marijuana among high school students.
Did we really believe the loosening of restrictions on marijuana sales, possession, and use – including those related to “medicinal marijuana” – was not to affect those we have worked so hard to protect from the ravages of substance use condition and disorder? Not so much.
In fact, the national SADD organization predicted as much when it rallied publicly against decriminalizing the possession of marijuana years ago, stating, “Decriminalization would encourage increased use, including among teenagers. Decriminalization also sends the message that marijuana is harmless, which is not the case. The developing brains of teenagers are susceptible to negative changes due to drug and alcohol use, and these changes can be permanent.”
This statement foreshadowed much of the information just released from NIDA, including reference to the normalizing of use and detrimental impact on maturing adolescent brains. Citing a new study by scientists at Northwestern University, NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow said, “What is worrisome is that we’re seeing high levels of everyday use of marijuana among teenagers … the type that is most likely to have negative effects on brain function and performance.”
What are those effects?
According to the Northwestern study, they include differences in structures such as the thalamus, globus pallidus, and striatum. Translation: a decline in “working memory” vital to solving puzzles, remembering numbers, or quickly processing information needed to perform everyday tasks. Working memory is also a strong predictor of academic success, according to Matthew J. Smith, an author of the study.
The NIDA report also highlights the concern that the relaxation of restrictions on marijuana (which can now be sold legally in 20 states and Washington, DC) has been influencing teenagers’ behavior. The federal statistics tell us that more than 12 percent of eighth-graders and 36 percent of high school seniors at both public and private schools reported smoking marijuana in the past year. Perhaps most alarming is that approximately 60 percent of seniors said they did not believe regular use of the drug is harmful.
Similar attitudes were reflected in recent driving research conducted by SADD and Liberty Mutual Insurance, in which 23 percent of teens admit to driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs. A whopping one in four teens (25 percent) who have driven under the influence of marijuana say they’re not distracted “at all” when mixing substance use with driving.
With 13 million driving-aged teenagers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we have reason to be afraid.