Photo Credit: New Health Advisor
Photo Credit: New Health Advisor

*some names have been changed on request

A little over a week ago, people around the globe celebrated the unofficial holiday of cannabis, 4/20. While the super-plant used for a variety of physical ailments including cancer, epilepsy and mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety has received growing acceptance in the United States, adolescent use is still plagued with negative stigma. I myself am a long time medical patient and attended the city wide 420 event along with hundreds of other card carriers at Urban Greenhouse dispensary of Phoenix on Thursday. While waiting in line (wait times exceeded one hour for some of the best holiday deals in town) I began talking with others in the queue about early experiences with marijuana, what kind of myths they heard about marijuana growing up and our first introductions to the herb.

Elaina, a 25 year old hairdresser from Sunnyslope said “In high school everyone seemed to either like it or avoid it. The stoner crowd wasn’t really a thing like on tv. The popular kids were who smoked weed. If you smoked weed, you were also probably popular.”

“I was told it lowered your IQ” answered Ashley*, who waited in line with her husband. “Especially by teachers. It makes you stupid and lazy and that school work will suffer”. Others responded similarly. “My dad told me it lowered his sperm count” says a man in line about 40 years old. “Obviously he still had children, I don’t know who told him it did but he still mentions it and he’s 73 years old”.

“The stoner crowd wasn’t really a thing like on tv. “

When I asked what people thought of teenagers using cannabis both medically and recreationally, thoughts were mixed. No longer were we discussing our own experience and you could tell stigmas still lingered. Ashley said “I think for medical reasons only. Otherwise it’s abusing the drug and it can’t  be good for developmental reasons to start super young, especially with medical grade”. A mother of two named Kaylah spoke up “Right, like I don’t think recreational should be for kids. That’s not good. I understand Medicinal but kids shouldn’t be allowed to just…Ya know…Buy weed. They can’t buy cigarettes or beer until a certain age. Same thing”.

I asked people how they would feel about decriminalization of cannabis consumption and possession for teenagers 13-19 years of age. Many had no answer while some said they needed to be sure it wasn’t dangerous to the development of the adolescents.

Scientific studies based around adolescent cannabis use are still taboo despite the increasing acceptance of both recreational and medical marijuana in states like Washington and Colorado. A study funded by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Riekers University is pushing to change these scientific voids.

“I don’t think recreational should be for kids. That’s not good. I understand Medicinal but kids shouldn’t be allowed to just…Ya know…Buy weed.“

The project, conducted by lead researcher Jordan Bechtold Ph.D, a psychology research professional with the University of Pittsburgh was originally known as “ The Pittsburgh Youth Study”, tracked 14-year-old male students in public schools in the late 1980s. The focus of the study was to analyze different social and health issues including but not limited to behavioral and mental health. Over a 12 years span, participants completed a survey on an annual or semi-annual basis. 408 of these participants also filled out a follow-up study between 2009 & 2010 at age 36.

The results, published in 2015, were comprised of annual and semi annual analysis of 408 males throughout adolescence into their mid-thirties to conclude these findings. The original research study was published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

The findings suggests that chronic marijuana consumption by teenage males does not appear to have a negative effect on mental or physical health later on in life when it comes to things such as psychotic symptoms, asthma, and depression.

“What we found was a little surprising,” said lead researcher Jordan Bechtold, PhD, a psychology research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “There were no differences in any of the mental or physical health outcomes that we measured regardless of the amount or frequency of marijuana use during adolescence. She added, “there were no differences in any of the mental or physical health outcomes that we measured regardless of the amount or frequency of marijuana use during adolescence. We know that normal aging is associated with declines in immune functioning, so it is still unclear whether or not chronic/heavy marijuana use interacts with or accelerates the aging process, these are questions that remain, although this is an excellent start to addressing the various health and mental health concerns surrounding the use of marijuana among teens”.

The findings of this long term study paint a completely new picture surrounding early cannabis use among adolescents. Rather than construct the illusion of danger, these results open a new doorway to treating illnesses that know no age restrictions including MS, epilepsy and certain forms of cancer and degenerative diseases. It also rebukes decades of anti-marijuana rhetoric spread by the War On Drugs campaigns like D.A.R.E. rhetoric that wrongly suggested things like marijuana being a gateway drug, lowering sperm count and killing brain cells.

“There were no differences in any of the mental or physical health outcomes that we measured regardless of the amount or frequency of marijuana use during adolescence”

My mind immediately goes to the countless black and brown youth currently locked away in both juvenile and adult facilities for possession of marijuana or cannabis products. Wrongly funneled through the prison pipelines due in large part to mandatory minimum sentences we know to be arbitrary. I wonder, is there finally the momentum for a movement to demand widespread decriminalization based on science? Decriminalization even of teen cannabis use and possession? Could it be the struggle of the future?

I also can’t help but think of the groups of teens dealing with illnesses undiagnosed. In a society to places high value on medical diagnosis, we forget that large portions of individuals under the age of 18 who are not receiving regular preventative health and do rely on the often stigmatized act of self medicating. Rather than vilifying the act of self medicating I advocate for informed consent and continued education about both the benefits and drawbacks of regular cannabis consumption for all. The abstinence and ignorance approach to drug education for adolescents breeds a culture of secretivity in our youth about their care needs.

“I wonder, is there finally the momentum for a movement to demand widespread decriminalization based on science? Decriminalization even of teen cannabis use and possession?”

Rather than identifying all teens and young people as monolithic in their vapid and apathetic intentions with cannabis consumption, I see the individuals. I see their illnesses both visible and not, who are not all just “bored” (though I could discuss why the idea of boredom is fundamentally rooted in the understimulation of the mind, body and spirit…..which can’t be the fault of youth only just beginning to understand and gain access to their likes and abilities)…

I believe at some point, the results of studies like “The Pittsburgh Youth Study” enable us to break down the information, much of it no more than left over anti- drug propaganda of the last two centuries. “Facts” or “common knowledge” that we’ve believed to be rooted in truth that’s indeed originated in fear, ignorance and hearsay.


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Adele Thomas is a Phoenix based writer, doula, mother and social media consultant. She is a regular contributor to Roaring Gold and her work can also be seen on Kinfolk Kollective, Racebaitr and other online publications. Her portfolio can be found at Adele The Writer. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram