Marijuana is harmful to young people | Guest Column

By Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, MN

Many parents on San Juan Island are putting their children in danger.

I can only assume that this is not intentional. Good people live here. So they must not understand or be aware of the potential damage to the people they love – because that is the only explanation.

Marijuana is not harmful to humans twenty-three and older. But younger users may have serious long-term consequences. When you start using pot at a time while the teenage brain is rapidly growing, you can permanently decrease neuron growth.

Newer research suggests that there can be long-term cognitive effects if marijuana is started during the teenage years; decreased inhibition, and a desire for more use. Those who use marijuana before 17 have a significantly decreased chance of completing high-school, and a five-fold increase in depression and anxiety. Additionally, research by Dr. Christine Miller of John Hopkins has shown that the suicide rate increases sevenfold – yes, seven times more!

Yet stories abound about our island teenagers smoking pot with their parent’s endorsement, or the parents providing the marijuana, or looking the other way. And because our educational strategies have been ineffective, teenagers just respond with, “Hey, if it’s good for adults, it must be good for us too.” I don’t blame them. We have failed, as documented by a decade of school surveys.

Dr. Mandy Gulla as well as myself, a registered nurse, believe that in many situations marijuana might be the best medicine – for adults. But as Dr. Gulla explains to her teenage patients;

“Our current understanding is that when we hit the teenage years, it is normal for the body to decrease specific areas of growth or down-regulate neurons so that the person can specialize in one area of interest or another.

During this sensitive time of neuronal changes, using marijuana can lead to an increased risk of mental and emotional illness as well as permanently decreased neurons. There are specific medical indications where benefit may outweigh risk – but recreational use is not worth the risk”

If the predominant cultural belief that pot is not harmful to teenagers does not change, our community is on track for more suicides, depression, and other mental and emotional illnesses. How can we come together now to effectively address these challenges? I salute Safe San Juan’s Cove Youth Program and their partnership with teens. This is a great start.

Part of my motivation is a profound regret, and a desire to prevent further suffering.

I personally mourn the devastating impact that early marijuana use has had on our family and friends and wonder if things would have been different if I had known the research, and had been surrounded by a supportive community that understood the risk to growing brains and took action.

As good people, we can do better — and we must.

Bartholomew is a resident of San Juan Island.