DEAR DOCTOR K: I have a teenager, and I’m worried he might try marijuana. I’d like to give my teen some facts about marijuana that will make him think twice about using it. What can I tell him?
DEAR READER: You’ve asked an important and timely question. Marijuana use is on the rise, especially among teens. 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. The message that it is safe to use is stronger than ever. That’s why it’s vital for parents to talk to their pre-teens and teens about marijuana.
Certainly, it’s important to keep some perspective. There surely are more dangerous drugs, such as 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.
The safety of marijuana is a controversial area. There are not many large, long-term, good studies. So no doctor should have a dogmatic and confident opinion about its safety. Here’s my best current judgment for what you need to make sure your son understands.
Marijuana affects the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, sensation, concentration and memory. But that’s not all. Marijuana also:
— Affects the developing brain. These effects may be permanent in people who start using it heavily during adolescence. There is reasonable evidence that regular, heavy use of marijuana in the teen years — when the brain still is developing — can lower IQ and alter memory and thinking.
— Can lead to psychosis. Regular, heavy use of marijuana also can raise the lifelong risk of schizophrenia. It has been linked to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
— Can damage the lungs. It’s never a good idea to inhale any kind of smoke into the lungs. Marijuana smoke can lead to infections, asthma and other lung problems.
— Makes the heart beat faster. It can cause the heart to beat extremely fast for a long period. When that happens, it can increase the risk of dangerous heart rhythms that can lead to sudden death — even in a teenager.
— Can impair concentration and judgment. It is dangerous to smoke pot and then drive. Driving performance can be as impaired as when a person is intoxicated by alcohol.
— Can be addictive in some people.
Finally, make sure your teen understands that, in most states, having or using marijuana is illegal. It can lead to jail time.
Talk to your son early and often. Make sure he knows the facts so he can make the best choices for his health and future.
(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)