Is Pot the Next Legal Killer?

A dangerous opinion: Only 36% of high school seniors believe regular marijuana use puts the user at great risk. 

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Why new laws legalizing marijuana may be extra dangerous for your generation— and how you can protect yourself.

Drive by a Colorado strip mall, and chances are there’s a storefront with a glowing marijuana-leaf sign nestled between grocery stores and nail salons. Inside, moms rub elbows with college kids, picking purchases from an array of baked goods and prescription bottles.

Welcome to the world of legal pot, full of puzzling paradoxes. Emily Landini, a seventh-grader from Massachusetts, sums up the problem: “On one hand, I see kids at school who smoke pot and have a terrible reputation and bad grades. Then I hear that sick people can benefit from medical marijuana. So it’s confusing.”

That confusion is spreading: By the end of 2016, it’s predicted that more than half of all states will allow some form of legal marijuana use. Supporters of these laws say our country will benefit from gaining control over the drug, thereby eliminating its dangerous underground market. “As a society, we are far better off taking the profits out of criminals’ hands,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Legalization will allow us to regulate the product in a responsible way.” 

But as more states legalize marijuana, public health experts fear that Americans are becoming blind to the drug’s health hazards. They also worry that marijuana is following a path similar to tobacco’s about a century ago, when its popularity outpaced a widespread understanding of its risks—ultimately resulting in 6 million deaths a year. “We have to ask ourselves if we want to go through that nightmare again,” says Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). 

Until these potential scenarios play out, there’s no way to predict the outcome of this nationwide health experiment. But there’s one thing all parties can agree on: Pot has been proven dangerous for the teenage brain. Read on to find out exactly what’s at stake.

You might think: If pot is used as medicine, it must be safe.

You should know: Many doctors see potential benefits in medical marijuana, such as treating seizure disorders. But right now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recognize the raw marijuana plant as medicine. “To become medicine under FDA guidelines, it would need to be proven safe and effective in a clinical trial,” says Erin Parsons Garrett of the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy. 

While more research on medical marijuana is still needed, the drug’s documented effect on teens is frightening. Adolescence is prime time for brain development, and using marijuana can rewire the mind to make connections in the wrong places: “It’s like messing with the foundation of a house,” says Krista Lisdahl, director of the brain imaging and neuropsychology lab at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Make critical errors now, and there’s no going back.” 

You might think: Marijuana is a harmless way to de-stress. 

You should know: While the zenned-out stoner has become a stock character in movies, experts say not everyone gets a relaxed feeling from pot. For many people, it actually increases paranoid thoughts, says Dr. Leslie R. Walker, chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Regular pot users also suffer from poor memory and attention span and are at greater risk of developing mental health issues. In one study, for example, teens who smoked marijuana once a week were twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder.

You might think: Driving under the influence is OK.

You should know: Three out of four teens who admit to driving under the influence of marijuana wrongly believe that it improves or has no effect on their driving ability. But crash stats are telling: Those testing positive for marijuana are twice as likely to have an accident as sober drivers. 

That’s because psychoactive ingredients in pot slow reaction time, hinder coordination, and distort perception of space and time, making it dangerously difficult for any driver, let alone a newly licensed teen, to navigate the roadways safely.

You might think: No one overdoses on marijuana. 

You should know: Not true—not even close. In fact, Dr. Walker has seen an increase in marijuana overdose patients every year since Washington state legalized recreational use of the drug in late 2012. Many of these are teens as young as 14, struggling with hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. 

The OD uptick is largely attributed to marijuana edibles— treats like brownies or candy that may pack several doses of pot. Without proper warning labels, many unsuspecting users devour too much too quickly. 

One chilling example: In March 2014, a 19-year-old boy visiting Colorado received a cookie from a friend that contained six doses of THC—pot’s psychoactive ingredient. Less than three hours later, he committed suicide by jumping from a fourth-story balcony. 

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