During the 2017-2018 school year, the California Healthy Kids Survey asked students in Lafayette, California about their substance use habits and their opinions on substance use.
Lafayette is a small city in Contra Costa County, California, situated between Berkeley and Walnut Creek in the East Bay. It’s adjacent to the towns of Moraga and Orinda, and locals have dubbed the area “Lamorinda.”
In addition to asking 7th graders if they’d tried alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs (which, results showed, were very few) the survey also asked about the perceived risk of harm. In other words, even if they personally didn’t use any of these substances, how bad did they think using these drugs were?
Perceived risk of harm is a common survey metric that gives another insight into adolescent substance use. Evidence shows attitudes about risks associated with drug use are related to the decision to use or not use drugs.
What Does the Survey Say?
Here are the facts:
- 45% of 7th graders think there is moderate to no harm in consuming 5 or more alcoholic beverages a week
- 61% say occasional marijuana usage has moderate to no risk
- 26% say daily marijuana usage has no great harm, with 13% saying there’s no harm at all
Perception of Harm: Alcohol and Marijuana
|Alcohol – Drink occasionally
|Alcohol – 5 or more drinks once or twice a week
|Marijuana – Use occasionally
|Marijuana – Use daily
Let’s repeat the last statistic. While about 75 percent of surveyed 7th graders in Lafayette think daily marijuana use is bad, about 25 percent do not.
Early Drug and Alcohol Use
While these statistics don’t seem that shocking, at least compared to actual rates of substance use in Contra Costa County, they are still concerning.
As a reminder, most seventh graders in California are 12-13 years old.
Of course, occasional marijuana use is not as bad as daily marijuana use. Just like one alcoholic drink a day isn’t as harmful as five drinks a day. But when 13 percent of 12-year-olds think there’s no harm in daily marijuana use, and no harm in having five drinks a day once or twice a week, we think that’s a problem.
For many adolescents, addiction develops gradually.
Let’s take marijuana as an example.
A teen might try vaping marijuana at a party on the weekend. Then they try it again a couple of weekends later. And then again just one weekend later. Then after school one day. Then they find a way to get their own vaping device and their own cannabis vaping product. At that point, they can use marijuana any time they like.
Before a parent realizes it, their teen may be using marijuana every day – and that’s a big problem.
Teens who use marijuana on a regular basis build up a tolerance to the drug, so they need more and more of the drug each time to achieve the same effect.
This is a dangerous situation. Studies show marijuana – along with a host of other recreational drugs – has harmful effects on attention, memory, and learning. Even short-term use has negative effects. And today’s strains of marijuana are more potent than they once were years ago, which means there’s more THC per gram of marijuana than ever. Research also shows teens who use marijuana regularly are more likely to engage in risky behavior and get into trouble with the law.
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
While it’s common to hear that marijuana is a gateway drug, meaning marijuana use leads to the use of harder drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine, the truth is that it’s not that simple. Data shows that people who have tried marijuana are at increased likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder within three years of first use. Data from the rodent model (meaning lab experiments on rats) indicate that early exposure to THC increases sensitivity to other drugs as adults – but this is not proven in humans. In fact, the majority of people who try marijuana do not go on to use harder drugs.
With that said, let’s be clear we do not take a casual stance on marijuana use among teens.
We cannot underestimate the real and significant damage that marijuana can cause the adolescent brain.
Damage caused by marijuana use during adolescence can have serious, long-term consequences across all phases of life.
Key Takeaways From This Report
- The report shows many 7th graders don’t think regular marijuana use is a big deal.
- Science says regular marijuana use – especially in teens – is a big deal and can cause long-term damage to critical brain areas and impair brain development.
- Parents, teachers, and school administrators need to read this report and act on the information it contains.
Our position is that adolescents and pre-teens need to learn the latest facts about the effects of marijuana on the developing adolescent brain. They need to grasp the real dangers, so that, when they get older and substance use becomes more prevalent among their peers, they’ll know to say no – and they’ll know why saying no is the right choice.