Marijuana: A Gateway to Teen Addiction?

July 25, 2019

It seems that the prevalence of marijuana use is on the rise among today’s teenagers, and this isn’t just because marijuana is becoming legalized in certain states across the country. Many teenagers are trying marijuana, and some are using it quite regularly. In fact, today’s teens are more likely to use marijuana than tobacco. Even more worrisome is that today’s cannabis plants contain far higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than they did in the past. Because of this, it is no wonder that marijuana is becoming a gateway to teen addiction.

Today’s parents seem to be adopting a very different mindset on marijuana use than they did in the past. In fact, Steve Pasierb, the president at Partnership at, has indicated that teens who smoke marijuana 20 times per month are nearly two times as likely to use ecstasy, cocaine, or crack. But if this is the case, why are parents becoming more lenient on their views of marijuana use? This seems to be a great unknown, but it is likely due to parents focusing more on alcohol use instead of drug and alcohol use overall. And, more parents may be changing their views on marijuana due to the growing presence of legalized marijuana.

In any case, the addictive qualities of marijuana pose significant dangers to impressionable teenagers who enjoy the high and euphoric feeling that comes with the use of cannabis. This desire for further euphoria may, therefore, lead them to seek that effect from other options.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that those exposed to cannabinoids as adolescents experience a decrease in the reactivity of dopamine in adulthood. Because of this, to get the same high as before, the teen (or adult) feels the need to seek out that high in other ways. Of those who use marijuana regularly, nearly 10% struggle with addiction, which is a physical and psychological dependence on the drug. 

Marijuana acts as a stimulant, which provides a burst of energy and confidence in most users. However, for others, it can act as a depressant, which makes marijuana a prime choice for those struggling with anxiety. Marijuana users that are battling mental illnesses often rely on the drug to bring a sense of calm, allowing a temporary escape from their problems. Unfortunately, when the calm wears off, the problems remain.  Unfortunately, once the brain develops a tolerance to marijuana, someone using the drug will need stronger variations or increased doses of marijuana, or accessibility to a harder substance, to achieve the same high. This leads to behaviors that often result in addiction or overdose.

The side effects of marijuana use

Though cannabis may provide a temporary feeling of calm and relief, ongoing use is strongly correlated with side effects and can worsen the symptoms of mental illness. The most common side effects of repeated and frequent marijuana use include:

  • Mood changes
  • Impaired cognitive abilities
  • Cardiac complications
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Inability to conceive
  • Disorganized thoughts and sense of confusion
  • Suicidal thoughts

Marijuana contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a chemical that produces the euphoric effects that users generally experience. When the drug is inhaled or consumed, the THC travels directly to the brain, influencing how brain receptors communicate with the body and signal necessary motor functions. Continued exposure to THC also increases the presence of cross-sensitization, which is the brain’s boosted response to other drugs. Using marijuana increases the feelings and responses to other substances, which is why many experts believe that marijuana is a gateway to using other harmful substances. 

But it seems there are inconsistent findings on whether or not marijuana truly serves as a gateway. Though early exposure at a young age to marijuana can increase the likelihood of drug abuse, many cannabis users do not pursue the abuse of harder drugs. Cross-sensitization also refers to nicotine and alcohol, and not just marijuana. So, while there may be a correlation between marijuana use and substance abuse, there is no definite causation.

Signs and dangers of marijuana use

While it is clear that marijuana use doesn’t result in the use of harder drugs for all users, there are definitely certain individuals that are more likely to turn to harder drugs in the future. Factors such as genetics, environment, and family background, may lead to a predisposition for the subsequent use of illicit drugs. Other risk factors for alcohol and other drug include alcohol or tobacco use, parental conflict/separation, childhood sexual abuse, major depression, and social anxiety.

If you are concerned that your teen is using marijuana, be sure to watch for the following signs: 

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Increased appetite including evidence of “the munchies”
  • Lack of motivation and a loss of interest in regular activities
  • Weight gain
  • Nervous or paranoid behavior
  • Increased irritability
  • Impaired coordination and distorted perception
  • Slowed reaction time and poor coordination
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Memory impairment or impaired judgment 
  • Anxiety
  • Relaxed state or excessive sleepiness
  • Feeling “high” or euphoric
  • Carrying pipes, lighters, vape pens, or rolling papers
  • Stealing money or having money that cannot be accounted for
  • Acting very silly and out of character for no reason
  • Using new words and phrases like sparking up, 420, dabbing, and shatter
  • Car accidents or a worrisome change in driving behaviors
  • Risky sexual exploration or behaviors

Additional risks of marijuana usage in teens

People, regardless of age, who smoke marijuana tend to experience the same respiratory problems as do cigarette smokers, including daily coughing and phlegm production, symptoms of chronic bronchitis, and the frequent onset of colds and other respiratory illnesses. 

Furthermore, today’s marijuana contains cancer-causing chemicals. Marijuana can bring about an increase in lung infections like pneumonia, and a study from 2009 suggests that regular and long-term use of marijuana may increase the risk for testicular cancer.

Marijuana also affects brain function, which can cause challenges in the ability for a person to complete more complex tasks and can damage an individual’s ability to carry out academic and athletic requirements that require one to be focused and alert. This is why academic and athletic performance tends to deteriorate with the frequent use of cannabis.

Additional studies have shown that early use of marijuana may increase a person’s risk of developing psychosis, which is a serious mental ailment in which there is a loss of contact with reality. Those who suffer from psychosis often experience delusions, hallucinations, etc.

Seeking treatment for your teen

If you suspect or know that your teen is using marijuana and you are concerned about their susceptibility for other drugs, it is important to seek treatment from a licensed professional. Additionally, teenagers who use marijuana and present with a co-occurring mental health disorder may benefit from treatment, including counseling and/or a psychiatric evaluation.

Mental health and substance use disorders affect people from all walks of life and all age groups, though teens are especially impressionable and susceptible. These illnesses are common, recurrent, and often serious, but they are treatable. Further, recovery is possible. Mental disorders which often present in parallel with marijuana or other drug use, include changes in mood and thinking as well as behavior. These disorders affect how your teen relates to others and make choices. Reaching a level of abuse that can be officially diagnosed often depends on a decrease in a person’s capacity to operate as a result of the disorder.

Serious Emotional Disturbance refers to a diagnosable mental, emotional, and behavioral disorder in those under the age of 18 that has manifested and remained present over the course of the past year, which has ultimately resulted in functional impairment that considerably interferes with or limits the teen’s role in their family, at school, or in community activities.

Therapy is the foundation of treatment for teens suffering from marijuana addiction. The goal of this tailored therapy is to provide your teen with the skills and tools to avoid or manage marijuana triggers, so they will not relapse and begin using again. Unfortunately, with the increasing rate of marijuana legalization across the country, it can be more difficult to get your teen into treatment programs that can help. That’s because more states are proceeding with the legalization of marijuana, and proponents of legalization are shifting the discussion on addiction.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, defenders of marijuana usage maintain the notion that marijuana is not harmful. That message, unfortunately, is being picked up by the mainstream press. Thus, marijuana users may feel that their families don’t understand the benefits of marijuana, and as a result of the press coverage, they may feel validated by the legalization effort. However, legalization doesn’t change the underlying chemistry of marijuana and the very real addictions the drug can cause. The legalization of marijuana also can’t stop the prevalence or occurrence of addiction.

The desired objective of marijuana counseling is to help given teens the ability to avert or handle marijuana-use triggers so that they are less likely to relapse when put in triggering situations. Therapy, often done on an in-patient basis, can provide problem-solving skills and lifestyle management, so that your teen can learn how to build a satisfying life that doesn’t need to be bolstered by drug abuse. As a relapse skill, trained counselors might also provide your teen with lessons on drug refusal, so that they can be prepared with what to say and what to do in the event they are offered marijuana by a friend, acquaintance, or dealer. Therapy sessions might be augmented with group work so that your teen can build friendships with others going through the same experience.

Often times, in-patient marijuana treatment includes exercise sessions, massage sessions, art-therapy sessions, and other alternative therapies that can aid in learning to cope with life, without the use of drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicating that those who enroll in marijuana addiction programs tend to have ten years of daily use behind them, and most have tried to quit more than six times. In the instance of a teen marijuana user, it is not likely that they will have ten years of use behind them, and thus a thorough evaluation by your teen’s physician may be required to determine whether or not in-patient treatment is an option.

In an inpatient program, the days are structured in such a way that there’s just no time to either think about or get drugs.  Following this daily schedule for several months can help your teen understand how to pack the day with benefits and support. A modified version of this schedule is provided for teens so that they can stay caught up in their school work and can fulfill academic requirements, which can replace some of the optional programs available during treatment. 

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Helping your teen recover from marijuana addiction

If your teen attended an in-patient treatment program, or even if they just worked with an out-patient counselor, direct parental support from you will be crucial to their success for long-term recovery. To be supportive, it means you will need to help and guide your teen to make the modifications to their life so that they can sustain their new, healthier lifestyle. You will also need to provide them with the proper environment when they return home from treatment. In some cases, your teen will struggle with an inability to rekindle old friendships that might have contributed to their drug abuse. This can be challenging. However, a basic non-negotiable house rule going forward will be that your teen stays completely abstinent from all substances. And, this may mean that they can no longer associate with past groups who had influence in their life. 

Keeping an open dialogue with your teen will be critical, and as a parent, you need to remember that socialization is part of being a teenager. Therefore, encourage positive interactions with sober peers but be consistent with your expected behavior and the consequences if your teen breaks the rules. Your teen will also need to understand that they need to provide you with complete transparency into where they are going, what they will be doing, and who they will be with, for the foreseeable future. 

It is critical to know who your teen’s friends are, as we all know that teens do not always make the best choices in picking friends, and this is part of adolescence (learning how to make wise decisions and healthy choices in friends). By helping your teen to understand the qualities they value in friendship, such as honesty and respect, you will help them to make better decisions on their influencers in the future.

If your teen is using marijuana and you’re worried about them being addicted to it or “graduating” to another substance, reach out to Hillcrest ATC for a consultation! We can help your teen get back on track.