Cannabis is now legal in some way or another in most states, but it may be risky for children to use it. That is according to a report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, or the AAP. The organization is urging physicians nationwide to warn parents about the dangers of marijuana for kids, despite its general perception as a safe, acceptable and therapeutic treatment.
Dr. Seth D. Ammerman, one of the AAP report’s co-authors, told the public, “Marijuana is not a benign drug, especially for teens. Their brains are still developing and marijuana can cause abnormal and unhealthy changes.” Currently, medical cannabis is legal in some or other form in 29 states. Anyone 21-years or older can use it recreationally in eight states, including the District of Columbia.
The youth are vulnerable to the effects of weed, however. Teens using cannabis frequently may experience weakened lung function, reduced sensory awareness, and loss of memory function and motor skill control. The AAP report also ties marijuana use to mental disorders plaguing the youth, including depression, psychosis, and addiction.
Risks of Marijuana for Children
The danger of cannabis lies in its increased tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, concentrations. THC is the plant’s psychoactive compound responsible for the “high” associated with use. According to the Biological Psychiatry Journal, THC quantities found in cannabis surged to 12 percent in 2014 from just four percent back in 1995. Today, some strains measure THC levels as high as 20 percent, even higher.
THC is the same chemical famous for reducing pain and helping cancer patients cope with the side effects of chemotherapy. Despite its healing abilities, the AAP is asking physicians to discuss marijuana use with parents and children, as well as screen kids for abuse. They say that even if parents use it safely themselves, they may not be aware of the impact it can have on kids.
In a statement, Dr. Sheryl A. Ryan, lead author of the report, said, “Seeing parents use marijuana makes kids more likely to use it themselves, whether or not their parents tell them not to, because actions speak louder than words.” This is an important point and one that can greatly influence a child’s lifelong view on cannabis use.
Children and Their Perception of Marijuana
Back in 2015, at least seven percent of kids between the ages of 12-years and 17-years were using marijuana. The number of adolescent users remained consistent with percentages gathered between 2004 and 2014. Studies indicate that approximately nine percent of those who try cannabis become dependent on it, but during adolescence that figure increases to a very risky 17 percent.
It gets worse: Teens using marijuana daily have a 50 percent chance of becoming addicted. However, there is some disagreement among experts about correlating usage as confirmation of whether or not use is on the rise after states legalize. According to the AAP, citing the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of teens aware of the risks dropped to 41 percent in 2015 from 55 percent in 2007.
The percentage of kids between the ages of 12- and 17-years who perceive marijuana as dangerous is steadily declining. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that risk perception among children dropped to 24 percent in 2013 from 34 percent in 2006. More and more children are seeing marijuana as completely safe and without risk, which is a troubling statistic for pediatricians.
Marijuana Legalization and Usage Rates
Policy and advocacy manager of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, Natalie Lyla Ginsberg told Healthline of her disappointment in what she calls the AAP’s “alarmist warning and avoidance of research.” She cited a report by the National Academy of Prevention, which found heavy marijuana use among teenagers at just seven percent.
That report mentions another study conducted in 2013, which found usage rates among teens on the decline in comparison to older adults. Another CDC report published in 2016 states that marijuana use has been decreasing among 12- to 17-year olds since 2002. It cites that children in that age bracket who used weed less than a month prior rose to 7.1 percent in 2013 from 6.7 percent in 2006.
Convincing evidence of marijuana’s danger is sorely lacking, however. There is no proof that marijuana use alone endangers kids. Ginsberg also mentioned data from Colorado, which indicates that cannabis use among teenagers dropped since the state legalized it. Kyle Sherman, Flowhub’s chief executive officer, told Healthline that his point-of-sale tool keeps the youth out of dispensaries.
He said, “Here in Colorado, we have seen no increase in teen use since legalization.” Like many others, he believes that regulating marijuana will remove it from the streets and restrict access to it for children. Ginsberg responded with, “There is no convincing evidence that cannabis use alone is harmful for children, but we also do not have enough research to assert that that means it is therefore safe.”
“However, we do have research that medical cannabis is far safer than many less effective and more dangerous pharmaceuticals often prescribed for children,” she continued. Ginsberg also noted that the AAP fails to consider the bigger picture when it makes assertions about the health effects of marijuana on kids.
“The AAP should focus screening on trauma and other stressors to children, instead of solely focusing on symptoms of trauma, such as substance abuse,” Ginsberg said. Dr. Guohua Li, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told Healthline, “As a parent, I am grateful to the AAP for safeguarding the safety, health, and well-being of our children.”
Li reiterated that, “There is an urgent need for federal, state, and local government agencies to monitor marijuana use and related consequences in children.” Although Li notes a lack of evidence that legalization is responsible for increased teenage use, there is growing proof that children have increased access to marijuana edibles.
Effect of Teen Use on Marijuana Laws
Assistant professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, says that because legalization is real and happening nationwide, the time to focus on regulating marijuana programs properly is now. He asked a pertinent question, “How best can we allow access for patients who could benefit while protecting kids and promoting public health?”
Bachhuber continued with, “Physicians have a key role to play in shaping policy and the overall debate, but all too often, we have decided to watch from the sidelines. The report by the AAP came just a week after Sean Spicer, press secretary to President Donald Trump, spoke about federal crackdown on cannabis regulation in legal states.
Although President Trump publically declared his approval of medical marijuana during his election campaign, cannabis is still a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Therefore, it still illegal under federal law. Until science proves or disproves the risks of use on teenagers, and until the federal government legalizes, parents should monitor child use strictly and accordingly.