Alicia R. Ventresca, M.A.
Marijuana is the most prolifically used illicit drug among adolescents in the United States. This elicits serious reason for concern given the main effects of early-onset use—neurocognitive deficiencies, psychosocial risk-taking behavior, and developmental as well as psychological problems. With a most vulnerable population willfully choosing to put their mental health—as much as their young futures—in danger, parents especially beg the question, why do adolescents use marijuana? To what extent does early-onset have immediate implications on development, and how are early adolescents especially susceptible to marijuana toxicity?
The predominant reason that most adolescents use marijuana is to experience a high: mild euphoria, relaxation, and sensuous intensification of ordinary experiences such as eating, watching movies, listening to music, and engaging in sex1. This drug can induce a rather surreal state of mind, even act as an anodyne to the trials and tribulations of real life, however, the consequences of early-onset are vastly more serious than its temporal appeal.
Though it has been argued that early adolescents may be more resilient to the neurotoxic influence of marijuana, early-onset is the salient predictor of both immediate and chronic issues. Because adolescence is a critical period for brain development and changes in the neuroendocrine system, the threat of neurocognitive deficit significantly increases during this stage. As structural and functional changes occur on different trajectories in various regions of the brain, resulting neuroanatomical anomalies have been shown to inhibit neuromaturation2. Hence, cognitive regulation, such as inhibitory control, decision-making and reasoning ability, go out the window (for lack of a better term).
Synchronously, the prefrontal cortex is still maturing (until late adolescence or early adulthood) while the socioemotional network undergoes a series of rapid changes. The socioemotional network thus becomes highly reactive to emotional arousal, working against the regulatory effectiveness of the cognitive control network. Due to this systematical imbalance, adolescents are not in a position to competently moderate risk, particularly in the face of heightened arousal, as they lack the necessary forethought and self-regulation. Hormonal and socioemotional changes may further aggravate early adolescents’ emotional distress and desire to find immediate gratification or rather, a fix. This is largely due to their impaired ability to deny strong pubescent urges and sensation-seeking behavior. For these reasons, early-onset is often linked to poor behavioral judgment (e.g. sexual risk-taking behavior, novelty-seeking, self-medication, continued or escalated usage).
It is important to remember that adolescence is foremost a stage for growth. Natural morphological and physiological changes—in combination with early adolescent marijuana use—are likely to produce significant differences in operation and in turn adolescents’ actions. However, it is unfair to expect adolescents to have adult levels of insight into such consequences before their brains are done being built. For these reasons, parents have a right to be informed, and more importantly, to protect their children.
1. Hall, W., & Degenhardt, L. (2009). Adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use. The Lancet (British Edition), 374(9698), 1383-1389.
2. Squeglia, L. M., Jacobus, J., & Tapert, S. F. (2009). The influence of substance use on adolescent brain development. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 40(1), 31-38.