Being a therapist in Colorado, I’ve heard more than a few comments from parents along the lines of, “I wish pot had never been legalized–now kids can get it so easily!” I understand the concern. Legalized marijuana has led to an increase in overall weed consumption in Colorado–among adults. It stands to reason that if parents are seeing more of their friends, neighbors, and loved ones enjoying legal pot, they’re going to worry about how easily their teenagers will be able to get their hands on it. In fact, recent research indicates legalized recreational marijuana is correlated with decreased rates of use among teens. One possible explanation is that, as the majority of consumers (those over 21) can go to dispensaries to buy marijuana, it’s far less lucrative to sell weed illegally. Of course, teens are still obtaining and using pot, but legalization hasn’t been the free-for-all some feared.
I was fairly astonished by a recent New York Times article, Reefer Madness or Pot Paradise?, about the marijuana industry in Colorado post-legalization. The article’s headline references a 1936 propaganda film now considered a cult classic for its cartoonish depiction of marijuana as a life-ruining drug that drives users to insanity and violence. The text of the article, unfortunately, includes anecdotes that suggest marijuana is a life-ruining drug that drives users to insanity and violence:
Five years of legalization have yielded stories of haunting deaths: A father of three who shot his wife dead after eating edibles. A young man visiting Colorado whose family blamed his suicide at a ski resort on the marijuana he had consumed.
The NY Times article fails to note that the man who killed his wife blames marijuana edibles for his actions, but is described by his wife’s family and friends as seeming constantly on the verge of losing control, with a nasty streak, and prone to road rage (see the PBS article linked in the text above). These factors strike me as far more significant than his use of marijuana. Similarly, the article refers to a young man’s death by suicide, and his grieving family’s statements that his use of marijuana is to blame. Of course this family wants to understand and explain this mystifying and inexplicable thing. It’s how humans process grief. But it’s irresponsible for the Times to imply this suicide is a “haunting” marijuana-related death, as if consuming THC suddenly induces suicidal thinking.
What I find troubling about this type of misinformation is that it obscures important, though less sensational, considerations regarding marijuana use. It is worth talking about the difference in potency between the marijuana on the market now compared to years ago. It is worth talking about how much we don’t know about the impact of marijuana on a young person’s developing brain. It is worth talking about the reasons various people use weed. But it’s not worth asking if highly potent weed is going to make you a murderer, because it won’t.
I tend to view marijuana as similar to alcohol. I’m not shocked to find out a teen is experimenting with either, but I have concerns about the whys, hows, and whens of their use. When I find out that a young client is using marijuana regularly, my concern is about what they’re trying to numb or avoid, how marijuana might impact their motivation and choices, and the currently unknown effects of heavy marijuana use on teens’ and young adults’ developing brains.
Likewise, if an adult client discloses to me that they use marijuana, my immediate response is curiosity: What does it do for them? Are there any negative effects they’ve noticed? How do they feel about the amount they’re using? As with alcohol, I believe many adults can use weed in non-problematic ways, while others use it in unhealthy, numbing, and self-medicating ways.
I want to encourage clear-eyed, non-panicked attention. If you’re worried about your teen’s pot use, or your pot use, that’s worth exploring with compassion and curiosity. If you’re comfortable with your pot use, that’s worth exploring with compassion and curiosity. We can trust our intuition without leaping to worst case scenario thinking. And, moreover, avoiding “Reefer Madness”-esque panic sets us all up to better understand and implement what’s best and healthiest for us and our families.