The use of marijuana in the teenage population puts them at risk of developing addictive behaviors into adulthood as well as the development of other long-term effects. However, research has pointed out that of all the illicit drugs, marijuana is the most used by teenagers and is thus perceived as being of little harm. This perception has led to states pursuing the legalization of and increased accessibility of the drug. These debates on policy shift, however, are being done without considering the impacts on vulnerable populations, especially teenagers.
According to researchers at both the University of Montreal and New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the disconnect between current policy dialogue and the reality of marijuana’s effect on teenagers is a concern. Researchers agree that more systematic studies are needed to gauge the long-term impacts of adolescent marijuana use in regards to both behavior and impact on the brain. However, current evidence has suggested that marijuana use in adolescence has far-reaching influences on adult addictive behaviors.
The question remains… Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
What the Research Has Shown
In a study that was published in the August 21st edition of Science Daily, researchers from the above mentioned schools reviewed over 120 studies that looked at the different aspects of the relationship between cannabis and the adolescent brain. The aspects that were analyzed included the biology of the brain, brain chemistry changes when the drug is used, and influences of genetic and environmental factors, among other factors. The data from these studies shows an association between use of marijuana and subsequent addiction to heavier drugs and the development of mental afflictions such as psychosis.
Learn more about the Long Term Effects that Marijuana has on the Brain.
Also, the risks of developing these disorders after exposure to cannabis is not the same for each user and depends on environmental and genetic factors, as well as the age of use and intensity. In comparing users in younger adolescence to those in late adolescence, the impact regarding mental health and educational outcomes are worse for those who start using cannabis earlier in adolescence.
Links between Marijuana Use and Behavior
While difficult to confirm casual links between use of marijuana and resulting behavior, the researchers have noted studies done with rat models regarding the direct observation of chemical reactions in the brain. From these model, researchers have seen that cannabis interacts in the brain through cannabinoid receptors that naturally occur within the brain. These certain receptors are located in the brain where management of rewards occur and where learning, decision making, habit formation and motor functions are governed.
The structure of the brain changes dramatically from adolescence into adulthood. It is seen that use of marijuana during the adolescent years greatly influences how those parts of the user’s personality develops. In adolescent rat models, it was observed that a receptor in the brain, known as the D2 receptor, was less present in the brains of those who used marijuana in adolescence. The D2 receptor is a dopamine receptor and is seen as a governor in the brain.
What is also interesting to note is that approximately one in four teenage drug users will go on to develop abusive or dependent drug relationships. According to researchers, this suggests that specific genetic and/or behavioral factors influence the likelihood of future drug use. Other psychological factors may also be involved along with the genetic and behavioral components.
Existing research is showing that cannabis is not harmless to the adolescent brain, despite the prevailing opinions that are present. Identifying adolescents who fall into those vulnerable categories is critical for prevention as well as intervention at the early stages of use. The need of systematic and evidence based research would be critical to forming substantive public policy as well as understanding the long-term effects of marijuana use on the adolescent brain.