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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Talking to Your Kids about Marijuana

February 14, 2014

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

Did you know that marijuana is the most common illicit (illegal) drug used in the United States? 

Marijuana use is on the rise, especially in teens. One reason is that it's easier to get than many other drugs (and cheaper). Also, teens think that it is safer than other illicit drugs. Two states have legalized recreational use of marijuana by adults; 20 have legalized its use as a medicine. The message that it is safe to use is stronger than ever. 

That's why parents need to talk to their pre-teens and teens about marijuana. 

Certainly, it's important to keep some perspective. There are more dangerous drugs, like heroin or cocaine. And cigarettes and alcohol are just as dangerous, if not more so. But marijuana isn't safe — and many people don't know its dangers. Here's what parents need to make sure their children understand.

Marijuana affects the brain. That may be obvious, given the high people get from it. It affects the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, sensation, concentration and memory. But what many people don't know is that:

  • It affects the developing brain. The effects may be permanent if people start using it during adolescence -- and are heavy users. It can lower IQ, and alter memory and thinking forever.
  • It can lead to psychosis. A person loses touch with reality. This can be short term  (some people report hallucinations and paranoia when they use it), but it can also raise the lifelong risk of schizophrenia. It has also been linked to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

Marijuana hurts the lungs. It's never a good idea to inhale any kind of smoke into the lungs. It can lead to infections, asthma and other lung problems. We don't know if it increases the risk of lung cancer, but it's certainly a possibility. 

Marijuana makes the heart beat faster, and can increase the risk of heart attack. 

Marijuana can affect the brain of the developing baby, if a woman smokes when she is pregnant. 

Marijuana can impair concentration and judgment, making it dangerous for those who have been smoking it to drive.

Many people think that marijuana isn't addictive — but that's not true. It actually can be addictive in some people—and it's really hard, if not impossible, to know who those people are ahead of time. 

It's also really important to make sure that your teens understand that, in most states, having or using marijuana is illegal. It can lead to a fine and jail time. The trouble they can get in for using it is very different than the trouble they get in for smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. Lives have been derailed or even ruined by drug charges. 

So talk to your kids. Have those conversations early and often — once is never enough, and situations change.  Make sure that they know the risks — and make the best choices for their health and their future. 

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.  She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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