Despite what many might believe, cannabis is the most commonly-used illicit substance among teens – as it always has been. But what happens when people start using cannabis at an early age? And what could be a reasonable age to start using cannabis?
Data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) claims that nearly one third of adolescents use pot. That being said, the question of whether or not smoking weed can negatively affect a teen’s developing brain is one that’s been on the minds of many parents since, well, probably the 1970s.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF TEEN CANNABIS USE?
According to a study that was published online in 2016, Dec. 29 in Development and Psychopathology, a Cambridge University Press journal, teens who start smoking around 13 or 14 years of age scored an average of 20 points lower on cognitive tests than non-users.
According to the study, “these results suggest that, in addition to academic failure, fundamental life skills necessary for problem-solving and daily adaptation […] may be affected by early cannabis exposure.”
However, the cognitive shortcomings are limited to certain areas of the brain, mainly the frontal cortex. This affects abilities such as verbal IQ and activities that require a “trial and error” learning approach.
There is a silver lining, though. If teens can wait until age 17 to smoke their first joint or to try that first bong rip, they won’t face any of the same impairments as their younger counterparts.
“We found that adolescents who started using cannabis at 17 or older performed equally well as adolescents who did not use cannabis,” reported Natalie Castellanos-Ryan, an assistant professor at UdeM’s School of Psychoeducation. “There is no particular developmental event that happens at 17,” she continued. “The brain has just simply had more time to develop, making the brain of a 17-year-old less vulnerable to the [drug’s] neurotoxic effects.”
In January 2017, researchers at University of Montreal published a prominent study – directed by Castellanos-Ryan – that compared teens who started using pot at age 14, to those who waited until age 17. The study looked at a group of 249 teenagers from some of Montreal’s poorest neighborhoods, and it took a total of 7 years to complete. The teens completed a slew of cognitive tests and filled-out various questionnaires at ages 13, 14, and 20.
During testing, they were given numbers and words to remember and repeat in various patterns. They were also asked to make associations between images, were tested on their vocabulary, and had to describe similarities between words. They also played a card game that measured how they responded when they won or lost money.
Overall, those who started using earlier already had inferior working memory and short-term memory, and it continued to decline. They did start out with impressive verbal skills and vocabulary though, which were unfortunately diminished after regular cannabis use.
It’s important to note that correlation does not always equal causation, and it was never determined if these teens had other issues (familial, societal, health, etc.) that could also affect their cannabis habits and cognitive abilities.
TEEN CANNABIS USE FALLS TO 23-YEAR LOW
Luckily, this is becoming more of a non-issue in recent years with federal survey data indicating teen cannabis use is consistently dropping
In 2016, only 6.5% of adolescents ages 12-17 used cannabis regularly. For research purposes, regularly is considered once a month in this study. This is the lowest teen use has been since 1994, and the numbers continue to drop, despite increasingly lax attitudes and cannabis legalization in multiple states.
Conversely, adult cannabis use is on the rise. In 2016, nearly 21% of Americans from the ages of 18 to 25 used cannabis regularly. This is the most since 1985. Adults between the ages of 26 to 34 have also been smoking more weed lately, with around 15% using monthly.
SO WHAT IS A SAFE AGE TO START USING CANNABIS?
While we in no way claim to be experts, or want to insinuate that we are the authority on when someone should start using cannabis, most experts believe that it’s best to wait until age 21. At that age, the brain is fully developed and no longer susceptible to the negative side effects that a teen’s brain would experience.
It does depend on the circumstance, however, as cannabis-based medications (those with CBD in particular) can be extremely effective at treating children. Especially those suffering from epilepsy.
To summarize, when using recreationally, it’s best to wait until your early adult years. If it’s being used for therapeutic reasons, the benefits could outweigh the negative impacts, so always consult with a doctor first.