As the title of this article suggests, many students and adults tend to minimize the significance of marijuana use and see it as a rite of passage; a kids will be kids thing. But the fact remains that the use of pot, alcohol or other substances has an impact on the social, emotional, and physiological development of young people. It is a fact that the brains of high school kids are not finished growing until they are about 20 years old and the use, no less the regular use of any substance has a real impact.

Over time, the substances that are in fashion among young people ebb and flow, but one constant is the impact on the emotional and physical well-being of the kids who use them. For example, although alcohol use among teenagers has dropped to historically low levels, 28% of high school seniors still reported that they had gotten drunk within the past month. That’s a lot of kids making poor and dangerous decisions.

While alcohol remains the perennial go-to substance for high school kids, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has shown a significant upswing in marijuana use among high school students that over the past few years. In recent survey they found that 17% of 10th graders and 23% of 12th graders reported using marijuana in the past month. These figures represent a significant increase since 2007 when 14% of 10 graders and 19% of 12th graders reported use in the past month. The survey also revealed an increase among high school seniors who use marijuana on a daily basis from 5% in 2007 to 6.5% in 2012. But as I’ve heard some high school kids say, “Don’t worry Mom, it’s only pot”. However, I think there is plenty to be concerned about.

A unique on-going research program is being conducted at the University of Mississippi through their Potency Monitoring Project. The study measures the concentration of the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis (THC) in thousands of samples of marijuana (and hashish and hash oil) seized each year since the mid 1980’s. One thing is abundantly clear; the potency of marijuana has increased steadily over the past three decades. The average potency of marijuana has now exceeded 10%, with some samples having THC levels as high as 37%. Average THC potency levels are expected to rise to 15% within the next five years. As a point of reference, the average THC potency in the early 1980’s was only about 4%.

A word about synthetic marijuana is in order at this point. These are any number of “designer” drugs that for the most part consist of herbs that are sprayed with a variety of chemicals. The result is a substance that when smoked has similar effects as marijuana. These substances are marketed as “K2”, “Spice”, “Black Mamba”, “Bliss”, “Blaze”, Genie” or “Herbal Incense” In 2012 the NIDA reported that 11% of high school seniors reported using it in the past year. The 2013 Monitoring the Future study which is funded by NIDA reported that the number of high school seniors who did not view regular marijuana use as harmful jumped to 60%, up from 55 in 2012. These beliefs are reflected in the continuing slow, but steady rise in marijuana use by high school students.

It is probably safe to say that most young people will always be drawn to the ritual substances of that are associated with the transition to adulthood. For parents it is a question of how to manage this allure and help teach high school kids to regulate the temptation. Talking with your children about making good decisions and life-style choices long before they get to high school would be a good start. Keep in mind that high school students who play sports or who participate in other extracurricular activities are less likely to use alcohol and marijuana than their peers who were not similarly involved.

We are up against pervasive notions held by many young people that the purpose of drinking is to “get drunk” and that the purpose of smoking marijuana is to “get wasted”. High school kids who are “experimenting” with today’s marijuana are much less likely to know how to manage the effects of such a powerful substance and are likely to bite off more than they can chew. Consequently these young people are much more likely to experience dysphoria, disorientation, paranoia and anxiety than if they smoked the less potent pot of several decades ago. For some young people who are troubled by family problems or their own identity issues, they may relish the numbness they might experience when they get high and its use would likely be reinforced because they simply want to get away from what is bothering them. Kids who use tend to seek out peers who mirror similar substance oriented behavior and while dropping long-standing good friends. The normal social anxiety faced in adolescence (identity issues & emerging sexuality in particular) might be falsely “managed” by chronic use of pot, thus arresting the child’s natural development.

I hope you keep all of this in mind if you ever hear your son or daughter say to you the equivalent of “But Mom it’s only pot”.