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How to Talk to Your Teenager About Marijuana: An Interview with Dr. Bonni Goldstein, M.D.

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As the mother of a young adult with severe disabilities whose refractory epilepsy has dramatically improved since we began giving her cannabis oil, I am a passionate proponent of cannabis. My belief in whole plant medicine extends as well to a strong conviction that marijuana should be legalized for recreational use. I personally have not used marijuana since my college days, over thirty years ago, and even then I rarely smoked and never with much pleasure. I was more the “take a few hits, become anti-social and retreat to my room with a book” kind of marijuana user and have never felt compelled to take it up again as an adult. Given my marijuana history or lack thereof, that I am an expert on the use of cannabis for seizure control as well as a writer for Marijuana.com never ceases to amuse and surprise me.

 

When I was asked to write something from the parent perspective for 420, I thought immediately not of my daughter, but of my two sons, both teenagers, and of how I navigate my passionate advocacy for cannabis medicine with their education about marijuana’s effects on the brain. My son thinks that he can smoke weed every day because it’s harmless, a friend told me the other day. It’s better than alcohol, Mom, another kid told his mother. Both of these mothers, friends of mine, expressed their reservations about full legalization of marijuana. They are worried that legalization is a tacit approval of a lifestyle. They are worried that their kids will be “stoners,” will fall behind in school, will lose motivation and, at worst, start using harder drugs. I understand those fears, and while some of them are irrational, others are worth taking seriously. I think anyone who has spent at least a small amount of time with teenagers or who remembers even slightly what it was like being one, would agree as well.

 

My feeling is that the burden of responsibility to teach our children about marijuana lies on us. I believe that just as we give them information about alcohol, other drugs and even sexuality, we must educate them about their brains and the effects of marijuana on those brains. My sons, aged fourteen and seventeen, know everything there is to know about medical cannabis because they’ve seen the dramatic improvement in their sister’s seizures and quality of life. I’ve been very frank with them about the power of marijuana, but I’m pretty emphatic, too, about my desire that they not use it until they’re older. Much older.

 

I consulted recently with a national expert on medical cannabis, Dr. Bonni Goldstein, to learn more about adolescent brain development and cannabis use. As the mother of a fifteen-year-old boy herself, she was informative and an immensely helpful guide for me in the education of my own sons.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What research is out there in brain development in adolescents and marijuana usage?

 

DR. BONNI GOLDSTEIN

 

There are numerous scientific articles that review the use of cannabis by teenagers, and most have concluded that there are risks, specifically for the adolescent, as the brain is quite vulnerable at this crucial time of development. A healthy functioning endocannabinoid system is essential to the maturation of the adolescent brain, and anything that interferes with this system, such as cannabinoids from the cannabis plant, may interrupt normal development. This interruption can negatively affect IQ, executive function, emotional responses, impulsivity and memory later in life.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

I’ve listed a number of these articles for reference at the end of the interview for people reading to really delve in and research, but do you have any recommendations for how to communicate the above to teenagers?

 

DR. BONNIE GOLDSTEIN

 

Yes. I explain to teenagers that they should not mess with their endocannabinoid system as it is quite vulnerable during their adolescent years. I make the analogy that while I was pregnant with my son, I didn’t put any chemicals, natural or synthetic, into my system as I was protecting the development of the baby. A teenage brain is just as sensitive to chemical exposures as a fetus – and to interfere with normal development that could cause issues for the rest of one’s life is irresponsible. I don’t tell a teenager “don’t use cannabis,” but I do tell them why they should wait until their brain is developed before they use it. “Wait” is easier for them to swallow than “no.”

 

INTERVIEWER

 

If your teen were to claim that “marijuana is safer than alcohol, and I can use it everyday,” how would you respond?

 

DR. BONNI GOLDSTEIN

 

For the claim that “marijuana is safer than alcohol, and I can use it everyday,” I would explain that they are correct in that cannabis appears to be much safer than alcohol. I would also say that exposure during the vulnerable teenage years is detrimental. In the same way that a pregnant woman should avoid using cannabis and drinking alcohol to protect the growing fetus, a teenager should avoid those chemicals because of the known vulnerability of the adolescent brain to long-lasting damage with chronic cannabis use. I also explain that medical cannabis is just that – medically prescribed to treat those with chronic and serious illness.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Beyond the adolescent/teen years, how do you feel personally and as a physician about recreational marijuana?

 

DR. BONNI GOLDSTEIN

 

I think that people will always use substances recreationally. That being said, cannabis is the safest substance for recreational use. In 25 years of medical practice, I have yet to hospitalize anyone for cannabis use. I cannot say the same about alcohol, opiates or other recreational substances.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Do you think responsible drug use should be taught to kids so that they learn about the possible negative effects on their developing brains?

 

DR. BONNI GOLDSTEIN

 

Yes. Starting at about eight years of age, children should be taught about the risks associated with alcohol and other drug use, including prescription medication risks. I have educated my own teenager, and he understands that his brain development is extremely important to his future well-being and that he shouldn’t interfere with the process. He is curious about cannabis, alcohol and other substances, just like all teenagers, but we have talked about it enough for him to understand the risks. He has said to me that he wants to try cannabis and alcohol, partly because some kinds in his high school are boasting that they are using these, but he has assured me that he will wait until he is older. I truly believe that his decision comes from the scientific basis of our conversations, without threats or drama. Just the facts.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Thank you so much, Dr. Goldstein. I think many parents will find your approach one that they can use with their teenagers. Whether our teenagers will listen to their mothers, I guess, is up for grabs!

 

Here are some good articles for reference:

Renard, Justine, et al. “Long-term consequences of adolescent cannabinoid exposure in adult psychopathology.” Front Neurosci8.361.10 (2014): 3389.

Schneider, Miriam. “Puberty as a highly vulnerable developmental period for the consequences of cannabis exposure.” Addiction biology 13.2 (2008): 253-263.

Meier, Madeline H., et al. “Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.40 (2012): E2657-E2664.

Jager, Gerry, and Nick F. Ramsey. “Long-term consequences of adolescent cannabis exposure on the development of cognition, brain structure and function: an overview of animal and human research.” Current drug abuse reviews 1.2 (2008): 114-123.

Photo courtesy of Allie Beckett.

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