To Experts' Dismay, Teens Embrace Marijuana As 'Healthy' And 'Non-Addictive'

Mar 10, 2014

Credit Flickr Photo/Kamera Kizi (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Recreational marijuana is legal – for adults. But it’s clear that the movement toward legalization is having repercussions for teenagers too.

Federal authorities have said they will be monitoring whether Washington’s legal marijuana supply makes its way to underage users. It’s one of the indicators that they say could lead them to intervene in the state’s experiment.

One issue is that teenagers are hearing conflicting messages about the health risks and benefits, and the addictive properties of marijuana.

‘Pretty Common At School’

This conflict was on full display at a recent forum at Seattle’s Town Hall, when 17-year-old Savannah Kinzer, a junior at Seattle Academy, asked a panel of substance abuse experts whether teens should be allowed to try drugs in a safe setting, where no one would drive home.

Panel members responded that it’s not a good idea. Kinzer asked, “Do you think that’s mostly just alcohol because alcohol’s the addictive substance whereas marijuana isn’t?”

UW Psychology Professor Laura Kastner responded, “I would actually interject that marijuana is addictive.” At that point some teens in the audience tried to shout her down, calling out, “It isn’t! It’s habitual!”

Savannah Kinzer's question on marijuana addiction provoked a heated response at Seattle's Town Hall.
Savannah Kinzer's question on marijuana addiction provoked a heated response at Seattle's Town Hall.
Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

Kastner continued, “Some people don’t know that and I see a lot of educated young men that don’t know the research.”

Substance abuse professionals say addiction is defined as compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences. It can be characterized by a failure to meet normal obligations and sometimes by symptoms of physical tolerance and withdrawal. 

Kinzer said the most commonly used drugs at her school are those prescribed for Attention Deficit Disorder, but marijuana is close behind. “Marijuana’s pretty common at my school, more common than I think alcohol even, especially because it doesn’t have as large of health effects,” she said.

Kinzer said she believes marijuana helps with anxiety, and doesn’t cause hangovers. And her doctor isn’t opposed to kids using it. “I just came from a doctor appointment actually and my doctor said that when kids have ADD, they smoke marijuana and it makes their brain function as a kid who does not have ADD.”

But her dad Craig Kinzer said he took away a different message from the doctor. “I think to be fair to the doctor, he said that people who do smoke pot, if they don’t regulate themselves, if they smoke it regularly, there’s a strong loss of motivation,” he said.

Some parents say they’ve seen that loss of motivation, and they blame the easy access to medical marijuana in Washington.

Outcast For Questioning Marijuana

Julie Campbell, an architect in Seattle, said when her son attended Ballard High School, she was shocked to find out how easy it is for teens to get legal access to medical marijuana. There’s no minimum age and no explicit requirement for parental consent.

“So a kid with a medical marijuana card can grow medical marijuana and distribute medical marijuana [to other authorized users] and it’s all legal. And that’s what is insane,” said Campbell, who helped found the Ballard Coalition for youth drug prevention.

Julie Campbell wants state officials to restrict the availability of medical marijuana.
Julie Campbell wants state officials to restrict the availability of medical marijuana.
Credit KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

There’s also no patient registry in Washington, as opposed to Colorado. So there’s no way to know how many people – including teens – have those authorizations.

The owner of one clinic contacted by KUOW said she does not give authorizations to minors, but she refers them to people who will. Also starting at age 13, information on drug use can be confidential between doctors and patients. 

Campbell said she’s more supportive of the new recreational system for marijuana under I-502, because it doesn’t sell to people under 21. Still, she said in groovy Seattle you can feel like an outcast for questioning marijuana at all.

“None of my friends know I am so involved in this coalition and in this work,” she said. “But there’s a real stigma that people have to face if they are vocal about their negative opinions about marijuana. It’s like telling people you don’t recycle.”

State legislators are currently considering whether to tighten up restrictions around medical marijuana, to create a registry and require parental consent for people under 18.

Higher Rates Of Addiction

Zachary Blachon, 18, a senior at Garfield High School, said he sought a medical marijuana authorization at one point. “I hurt my knee playing Frisbee a while ago. There’s pain from that a bit. And it’s just an easier way than going to a drug dealer,” he said.

The clinic he approached asked for medical records, so he decided to drop the effort.

Lisa Sharp, manager of prevention and intervention for Seattle Public Schools, said a 2012 survey indicated that most teens who use marijuana get it from their friends. But dispensaries are part of the pipeline.

“Of the high school students that say, ‘Yes, I used marijuana in the last 30 days,’ 38.5 percent of them said that that marijuana at least once came from medical marijuana dispensary,” Sharp said.

Sharp said these surveys also indicate that teens in Seattle increasingly view marijuana as more available and less risky. And use in Seattle is significantly higher than the state average.

But she noted that a majority of students still do not report using marijuana. That’s important because Sharp said research indicates that the age of initiation is an important factor in addiction. About 9 percent of adult users of marijuana become addicted, while the rate for teens is 16 – 17 percent.

“You’re looking at a lot higher rate, the earlier that you start,” she said. “Same falls true with alcohol: the earlier you start, the more likely you are to have addiction and dependency.”

Experts note that alcohol has much higher rates of addiction than marijuana for teens.

“If given the pure choice of a 16-year-old with a bottle of vodka or a 16-year-old with bag of weed, there’s plenty of reason to fear the vodka more than the weed. But rarely is it that pure of a choice; usually they use both,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg at the Town Hall forum.

Blachon tried to reassure parents anxious about marijuana legalization, which seems destined to shape teen attitudes as well.

“There are definitely the high schoolers, everyone knows them, they go a little too crazy sometimes,” he said. “But most high schoolers are very responsible with it. They know what it is, they know their limits.”