Parents, talk to your kids about health risks of heavy marijuana use

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2014 - 10:06 AM

As attitudes about marijuana use become more permissive, drug educators advise parents to talk to their kids about the health risks of heavy use.


Marijuana plants grow under special lights inside the grow facility at Medicine Man marijuana dispensary in Denver.

Photo: Brennan Linsley, Associated Press

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When Beck Kilkenny, a student at Minneapolis Community & Technical College, sat down to write the pro-legalization side of an editorial about marijuana for his campus newspaper, he included more than facts and numbers to support his position.

In his article “Pot? Yes please” in City College News, the 25-year-old Uptown resident was frank about his personal use, recalling that he began smoking pot at age 17 and was a daily user for a time.

“It’s helped me with my depression,” he said in an interview after the article ran. “It makes me feel content.”

Not too many years ago, such a public admission might have put a student in the cross hairs of college administrators or police. “But really, now, why would anyone care?” Kilkenny said. “It’s no big deal.”

There’s been a major change in how Americans regard marijuana.

In the past year, polls by Gallup, Pew and CNN documented that for the first time, a majority of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Even the president favors revising the law.

Voters have legalized cannabis for personal use in two states and 20 states have medical marijuana laws on the books. A proposal to allow marijuana as a treatment for certain medical conditions is pending in the Minnesota Legislature.

Yet some drug educators worry how this relaxed view may shape the attitudes — and drug use — of teens and young adults who are coming of age in a more permissive era.

“The message that kids are getting from all this is that marijuana is no big deal,” said Carol Falkowski, CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues and former director of the Minnesota state drug and alcohol abuse agency. “But not many parents who might be tolerant about adult use want to see their own kids become heavy users.”

Falkowski believes that parents need to reframe the conversation about use and abuse of marijuana.

“Parents need to look at the research,” she said. “The jury is no longer out. We know that marijuana has serious implications for brain development, which continues until people are in their mid-20s.”

Falkowski cites studies from the National Academy of Sciences, Northwestern University and others that indicate marijuana use in teens and young adults may impair cognitive function, create subtle changes in memory and even lead to a drop in IQ in the heaviest users.

Risks understated

But that’s a message that many young people are not getting.

A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse released in December found that while marijuana use by teens has risen only slightly, the number of teens who think there is “great risk” from regular use has dropped dramatically.

“These young adults see marijuana as benign. They hear about how it is used for medical conditions and they think, if it has all these positives, it can’t have any negatives,” said ThanhVan Vu, a chemical health counselor at Boynton Health Services at the University of Minnesota.

At 29, Vu is less than a decade older than many of the students she counsels, but she detects a generational shift in the prevailing attitude about marijuana.

“All the celebrities and pop singers use it. It’s easy for students to turn a blind eye to the consequences it can have on their neurobiochemistry. They minimize research that finds harm in use, or ignore it or are unaware of it.”

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