Parents: As more states legalize marijuana, here’s what you need to know and do

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Recreational use of marijuana was just legalized here in my home state of Massachusetts, and this has led to a lot of interesting conversations as legislators, regulators, and businesspeople try to figure out how to best implement this change.

But the most important conversations about marijuana, in Massachusetts and throughout the country, may be between parents and children.

This week the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a clinical report to help pediatricians and parents talk to teens about marijuana. As it has become legalized in more states, research has shown that fewer teens think of smoking marijuana as risky.

This is often what I hear from teens in my practice. They don’t think of marijuana as a dangerous drug — and the fact that its use was legalized seems to have reinforced the impression that it’s safe.

But it’s not safe.

Marijuana can:

  • impair short-term memory, concentration, attention span, and problem-solving, all of which can get in the way of learning and can also lead to accidents and injuries
  • lead to lung damage from inhaling the smoke
  • increase the risk of long-term psychiatric problems such as depression or psychosis
  • cause long-term problems with memory and executive function, even after use of marijuana has stopped
  • lead to addiction — experts say that 9% of those who experiment will become addicted. This number is higher (17%) for those who start in adolescence and even higher (25% to 50%) in teens who smoke marijuana daily.
  • cause growth and learning problems in babies whose mothers smoke during pregnancy.

Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. Cigarette smoking is legal, and is linked to many serious health problems. Drinking alcohol is legal, and leads to alcoholism, many health problems, and many serious accidents and injuries.

It’s really important that parents talk to their teens about the risks of marijuana use. It’s also really important that parents be mindful about how their own use of marijuana sets an example and sends a message. Here are the main points that the AAP wants parents to know.

  • Because marijuana affects the brain, and because teen brains are still developing, marijuana is particularly dangerous for teens.
  • Teens who use marijuana regularly can develop serious mental health problems.
  • While marijuana has been legalized in many states for use by people over 21, it’s still illegal for teens, so using it can lead to having a criminal record, which can affect getting into schools or getting jobs.
  • Driving under the influence of marijuana is like driving drunk: it’s dangerous and should never happen.
  • The smoke of marijuana is toxic, both to the person smoking it and the people around them.
  • If parents use marijuana in front of their teens, their teens are more likely to smoke it too. Think before you light up.
  • Another thing to think about before you light up: marijuana can impair your ability to make safe judgments for and about your children.
  • If parents have any marijuana products, especially things like edibles, they should keep them safely away from children (this is particularly true when there are small children at home).

It’s so important to think about this as a parent — and to talk with your teens, not just once but often, in an ongoing way. Make sure they have the information and strategies they need to make the best and healthiest choices. Make sure that you are making the best choices yourself when it comes to marijuana use, because as a parent, your choices are about more than just you.


  1. Marijuana as a Pain Killer

    @carenician I totally agree with you Marijuana has so many medical implications and yet it is sidelined as a therapeutic drug. It is also a substitute to Pain Killers and this property had been widely acclaimed by so many medical practitioners. I wonder why it still is being treated as a step child which no one wanted.

  2. Dr. Md, Aftab Uddin

    Thanks for marvelous & informative article.
    Yes, Marijuana is the most illicit drug used all over the world. It is proved that marijuana causes brain damage, learning disabilities and reduce ones cognitive functions. Its legalization may produce many bad effects on student society and as well as others. We need more consciousness about it. Legalization may kick student lives of that state.
    So we needs to prevent it and establish proper treatment for addicted one.
    To treat the addicted one, At first we need to detect them and take him away from marijuana.
    One of the biggest hurdle to quit smoking weed is withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, anxiety and panic attack, vivid dreams and so many on. To get rid from it about 80-90% of people start again taking weed.
    From our 2 year experience about quitting weed, we recently published an article about “how to ease cannabis withdrawal symptoms” for them. Hopefully it help millions of people who are trying and trying to quit marijuana.
    You are most welcome to:


  3. carenician

    Cannabis is that the least habit-forming substance out of tobacco, alcohol, and alkaloid. perhaps scaring youngsters with false claims regarding the toxicity of cannabis really will increase the prospect they’ll become users, or abusers. They before long discover it’s way less ototoxic and harmful than alcohol.

  4. E. Schmidt

    The conclusion reached by the above ncbi study reads as follows.

    “CONCLUSIONS: Our results may have been affected by selection bias or error in measuring lifetime exposure and confounder histories; but they suggest that the association of these cancers with marijuana, even long-term or heavy use, is not strong and may be below practically detectable limits.”

    If i have learned anything during years of University and a science degree it is that for every PRO study there is a CON study. It is irresponsible to think that only one side of an argument is fact.

    Key phrases in the above study statment, such as admitting to “errors” in the study and results “suggesting” an outcome is not solid proof or fact. Also just because results are small or “below detection” does not exclude the possibility under different conditions.

    I bevieve that a substance that has the ability to change brain chemicals at a time when a brain is still developing should be regarded with caution. I have witnessed a teen who started using “pot” in grade 9. This teen who is now an adult is suffering with bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, psychosis and has tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion. This individual can not hold down a job. This young person comes from a loving home with supportive parents that were blindsided by this individuals drug use. This young person was an honor role student that wanted to fit in.

    Im not sure if legalization is right or wrong but as with alcohol and smoking and with all other drugs it should be approached with caution and warnings should not be dismissed. Just because it is legal dosent make it safe.

    • PhilD

      I think that kid was using more than pot and the study above is all bs. None of those morbidities have ever shown to have a link back to smoking marijuana, talk about exaggeration this article is highly biased if you ask me. If anything Marijuana might be one of the single most healthful things you can do for yourself, it’s safer than a cup of coffee.

  5. Samson

    I don’t know how effective or helpful marijuana is. As far as my concern its uses as a drug. Anyhow thanks for sharing.

  6. Scott Mortimer

    Here’s the landmark study on cannabis smoking and lung damage, lead author Donald Tashkin UCLA 2006:

    “Marijuana use and the risk of lung and upper aerodigestive tract cancers: results of a population-based case-control study”

    The largest long-term study ever done showed no association between lung cancer and cannabis smoking, even among people that have smoked 30,000 “joints”.

    Cannabis is non-toxic to the body’s organs and, according a DEA administrative law judge, “one of the safest therapuetic substances known to mankind”. Cannabis does not cause any deaths through overdose or long-term use, unlike alcohol, tobacco, and sugar, which each directly cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the USA per year.

    Cannabis is the least addictive substance out of tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. Maybe scaring young people with false claims about the toxicity of cannabis actually increases the chance they’ll become users, or abusers. They soon discover it’s far less toxic and harmful than alcohol.

    Where is the credibility of the public health community then?

  7. Riven Colon

    I think marijuana is a bad drug.

  8. Peter Richardson

    The impact of smoking on shortening lifespan was published in the early 1950’s, and yet tobacco continues as an industry because it was already well-established. I hope we have a better sense to advise our young – and adults – about the many hazards of smoking marijuana before it becomes established as a major industry.

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