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Beyond “Just Say No”

By Molly Lotz | March 2019

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As policy changes regarding marijuana move across the United States, we are also seeing a shift in social norms and the perception of harm. Many teens today don’t think marijuana is harmful. I hear teens saying over and over that it’s natural, it’s medicine or it’s legal, so it can’t be that bad.
Teenagers clearly are receiving a lot of misinformation and mixed messages. Legalized cannabis is a reality for today’s youth, but it’s a different reality from what many of their parents, school counselors and other educators experienced in their youth. As trusted adults, we need to meet students at their level, at their reality. This means moving past the “Just Say No” approaches of previous generations and adopting a progressive approach to youth marijuana prevention that addresses cannabis as a legal substance (in some states) and also as a product sometimes used medicinally. Even for states without recreational marijuana laws, the approach to youth marijuana prevention efforts remains in dire need of an upgrade. It is important to arm students with the information to make healthy, informed decisions.
Brain Matters
The still-developing adolescent brain differs significantly from the brain of a fully developed adult. Therefore, the effects of marijuana on the adolescent brain differ greatly as well. During the adolescent years the prefrontal cortex, the portion of your brain just behind your forehead, is still forming. Prefrontal cortex development trims away unnecessary neural connections and begins the process of myelination, which is wrapping nerve cells in myelin, essentially a protective coating that increases the speed of electrical communications in the brain. This strengthens advanced-thinking abilities, including important executive-functioning skills – emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, reasoning and problem solving. Myelination in the prefrontal cortex isn’t completed until the early to mid-20s; thus, teenagers haven’t fully developed these advanced-thinking abilities. Nerve cells that aren’t yet myelinated are more susceptible to damage from drugs and alcohol, and substance abuse can affect the development of these important areas of the brain.
In discussing their thoughts about marijuana, students often share that because marijuana is sometimes used medicinally, they believe it must be safe. Thus, educating students about medicinal marijuana is crucial. Although research is still continuing, anecdotal evidence shows marijuana can be an effective treatment for a number of illnesses.
Nonsmokable cannabis products high in cannabidiol (CBD, the nonpsychoactive substance known for its therapeutic effects) and low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) are used to treat health conditions such as epilepsy and childhood cancers. Schools in many states have been entrusted to provide a balance between informing students of the risks of adolescent recreational use while still creating an environment of safety and understanding for medicinal marijuana patients. It is important to have these conversations with students and to help them identify the essential differences between recreational use and true medicinal use. It is also important to stress to students that medicinal marijuana, like any medication, should only be used under the supervision of a physician, parent or caregiver.
In addition to addressing adolescent brain development and the medicinal applications of marijuana, it’s also important to discuss the risks of driving under the influence of marijuana, decreased inhibitions and risk-taking activities that often accompany the use of any mind-altering substance. With regard to legality, many students today don’t understand that a marijuana-related infraction may affect their ability to get federal financial aid for college or even affect their ability to be accepted into certain postsecondary fields.
Educate and Inform
By staying current and seeking out new approaches, parents, schools and community organizations targeted to youth have the opportunity to be progressive in their methodology and advance best educational practices for today’s youth. When developing marijuana prevention programs, be sure your curriculum includes:
  • A deep dive into adolescent brain development to explain why youth substance use can be detrimental to the still-developing brain
  • Discussion of vaping, whether cannabis, nicotine or even flavored oils
  • Education about concentrates and potency levels, as well as distinguishing between THC and CBD 
  • Information about the differences between adult use and youth use, and the differences between medicinal use and recreational use
Most experts agree that education about issues such as alcohol and drug use is most effective if it begins at least two years before students are likely to be exposed to the behavior in a peer setting. Anecdotal evidence tells us most adolescents will have their first exposure to marijuana use between the fifth and sixth grades, which means conversations about marijuana should start no later than fourth grade. Starting the conversation with students when they are young, before tight peer groups form, makes it more likely they will reach out to a trusted adult with questions and concerns as they navigate adolescence. After building the educational foundation, adults must keep the dialogue going. Talking about the risks associated with adolescent marijuana use is not a one-time conversation.
Educators and parents face a complex and controversial subject in marijuana. Many adults are confused or unsure of the effects of adolescent marijuana use, so they don’t know how to advise youth. That said, the importance of talking to students about the risks of recreational marijuana use among teens cannot be overstated.
Research demonstrates that parents and adult mentors have the greatest influence in a child’s life. Many believe this powerful influence even supersedes that of peers and social media. Putting the most current research-based information in the hands of parents, mentors and educators opens the door to helping adolescents make informed decisions about marijuana. A well-informed student is an empowered student.
Molly Lotz, LCSW, is a school counselor at an alternative school in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and the co-founder of Marijuana Education Initiative, She can be reached at