Young People Face Increased Risk From Cannabis Consumption

Marijuana effects

Marijuana is perhaps the most widely abused drug in the United States. What’s more, the marijuana of today is more potent than ever with the risks of potentially permanent adverse effects on its users.

The advocates of marijuana have been given a loud voice through state legislation and legalization rhetoric. In this environment, young people may perceive minimal risk in marijuana use unless there is an equally loud voice of caution through drug education.

Let’s look at the risks and what we can do to protect our youth.

Harmful Symptoms and Long-Term Effects; What Happens When Young People Use Marijuana

Young people are at risk when they use cannabis because they are still developing. Adolescent, teen and young adult years are a time of rapid growth and development, physically, psychologically and behaviorally. Though a young person’s physical development may appear to reach its end in their teen years, other physiological and psychological developments carry on into the 20s. During this developmental period, the harmful side effects of marijuana can become potentially permanent damage.

Study problem

According to the CDC, Marijuana interacts differently with a young person than with a grown adult, hence a greater risk for adverse, long-term effects. Some of the negative side effects and harmful symptoms that can occur in young people during their youth or even later in life as a result of using marijuana include:

  • They may have trouble thinking and with problem-solving.
  • They may run into severe problems with memory and learning.
  • Young people may manifest impaired coordination and difficulty operating machinery or driving.
  • Youths may also experience difficulty in maintaining attention.
  • Young people who use cannabis may experience permanent changes in their neurological development.
  • Marijuana use in one’s youth has been linked to school dropouts and lower educational achievement.
  • When young people use cannabis, they increase their risk for mental health issues.
  • Marijuana use can cause depression, anxiety, nervousness, and other mental and emotional struggles.
  • Though more of an acute risk than a long-term one, cannabis use significantly impairs driving.
  • One in six teens who use cannabis become addicted to it.

The CDC concludes its reporting on the unique harms that young people face when they use marijuana with the following data, “Marijuana use directly affects the brain—specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time. Developing brains, like those in babies, children, and teens, are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of marijuana.” The CDC also mentioned that long-term or frequent use in young people is associated with an increased risk for serious mental crises, including psychosis.

Marijuana user

Without going too far into the biochemistry of mental health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has offered some compelling information on the severe risks that young people take when they use cannabis. According to the findings, people who begin using marijuana at a young age are more likely to experience long-term harm in the form of:

  • Marijuana addiction.
  • Impairments in learning and memory.
  • Loss of IQ.
  • Increased risk for drug use and alcohol misuse,
  • Increased risk for mental health concerns,
  • Sleep problems.
  • Impaired learning, coordination, and cognitive function,
  • Anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, impaired attention and judgment, and memory loss,

Given the harmful nature of marijuana, especially on young people, society must provide our youth with the truth about marijuana. If they knew the very real risks involved in its use, they would not be as likely to use cannabis.

An Acceleration in Potency; How marijuana has Changed

New research is suggesting that marijuana usage among young people is likely to cause serious mental health problems. One article showed a correlation between youth marijuana use and serious mental travails, likening that finding to the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Quoting the article, “Research shows only an association between smoking pot and developing psychosis or schizophrenia later on. That’s not the same thing as saying that marijuana causes psychosis. Years ago, scientists first noted an association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Only later were they able to figure out exactly how cigarette smoke damaged the lungs and other parts of the body, causing cancer and other diseases. The research on marijuana and the brain is at a much earlier stage. We do know that THC, one of the active compounds in marijuana, stimulates the brain and triggers other chemical reactions that contribute to the drug’s psychological and physical effects.”

It’s no wonder that young people are experiencing such significant harm as a result of using marijuana. The marijuana of today is much more potent than it was in previous years. According to one group of researchers who examined marijuana samples from 1995 to 2014, “Overall, the potency of illicit cannabis plant material has consistently risen over time since 1995 from approximately 4% in 1995 to approximately 12% in 2014. This increase in potency poses higher risk of cannabis use, particularly among adolescents.”

“There have been reports of people seeking help in emergency rooms with symptoms, including nervousness, shaking, and psychosis (having false thoughts or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there), after consuming high concentrations of THC.”

And it’s not just marijuana leaves that are increasing in potency. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The amount of THC in Marijuana has increased over the past few decades. In the early 1990s, the average THC content in marijuana was less than 4 percent. It is now about 15 percent and much higher in some products such as oils and other extracts. There have been reports of people seeking help in emergency rooms with symptoms, including nervousness, shaking, and psychosis (having false thoughts or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there), after consuming high concentrations of THC.”

Another factor to consider is the recent increase in instances of the lacing of marijuana with other substances like heroin, cocaine, LSD, or fentanyl. Lacing adds a new layer of harm for young people because most users do not know if their marijuana is laced with another drug.

There is, unfortunately, an inverse relationship between teenage and young adult marijuana use and harm. As marijuana becomes more potent, it becomes more harmful. Yet, as more states legalize it, more young people perceive less risk in using marijuana. There is now an upsurge in teen cannabis use with its attendant harmful side effects and symptoms. According to Magdalena Cerda of the University of California, Davis School of Medicine in Sacramento, “Across the country there has been a decreased perception of risk and an increase in marijuana use among adolescents.”

The Need for Drug Education and Marijuana Addiction Treatment

Scientists are warning the American people that “Policy is moving faster than research,” suggesting that the scientific community is learning a lot about marijuana that they didn’t know before. Yet, policymakers are pushing for legalization because it's what most Americans want.

But would Americans want legalized marijuana if they knew what the scientists are just now beginning to conclude and publish? What happens when Americans find all this data out after the fact of legalization of marijuana? Parents, families, schools, opinion leaders, policymakers and public health experts must do everything they can to inform the public on marijuana. It’s in the best interests of young people and the community at large to do so.

Additionally, marijuana addiction treatment must be available for those who need it. If you or someone you know is using marijuana and cannot stop using it, make sure to get help at a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Don’t wait until marijuana usage causes long-term, harmful, potentially permanent effects.


Reviewed and edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.