Colorado law legalizing marijuana for adults 21 years and over took effect on Jan. 1, 2014. So, now that pot is legal for adults it's not such a big deal if kids give it a try, right? Pot use, and any drug or alcohol for that matter, is still illegal for kids and young adults. Perhaps more important than the legal vs. illegal argument is the fact that any of these substances have dangerous effects on the developing brains, the gray matter, of young people.
Why do kids use drugs and alcohol? Peer pressure is certainly a reason but not the main one. The choice is typically due to boredom, easy access, under estimation of the harm or to help diminish symptoms of a mental health issue. According to the Colorado Health Foundation 2012 Health Report Card, "On average, teens begin drinking alcohol at the age of 14. Those who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol." For these kids, there is clear and present danger to brain development and addiction resulting in damaging impacts throughout life.
Our brain doesn't reach "adulthood" until around the age of 25 and research has shown time and time again that pot and all substances impact the teen brain much differently than adult brains. In adolescence, delicate synapses are still forming, gray matter is growing and the brain is focused on building the parts that maintain memory, learning, emotional control and executive functioning which will be used for the rest of their lives. Early substance use stunts these growth areas while increasing the possibility of mental health issues, academic failure, addiction and relationship difficulties.
While alcohol is the most abused substance by teens, a study from the CSU Extension office reported that up to 56.5 percent of Colorado teens have used some form of illegal drug by the 12th grade, with up to 6.8 percent having used an illegal drug before age 13. Heroin and prescription drug use is on the rise in the south metro area. Opiates, including Percocet, heroin and oxycontin, are extremely addictive, so not only do they have a devastating effect on teen brain development; they are extremely difficult to quit.
How do you recognize the signs of substance abuse in teens? When is it normal teen moodiness or addiction? Most often there are key, noticeable changes in behavior, moods, grades and friends. You may notice the telltale signs of slurred speech, "looking high," dilated pupils or changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Be aware of your teens "normal" and gauge changes from there. Unchecked, substance abuse in teens can lead to immediate health risks such as risky sexual behavior and physical injury. Addicted teens have a higher dropout rate and increased criminal behavior and involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Preventing young people from trying drugs and alcohol is the first and safest line of defense in maintaining healthy brain development and a healthy person. Prevention requires open and honest communication, clear rules and expectations about behavior. It also requires a close look at your own substance use and beliefs. If you think your child is using drugs, early intervention is the best option for successful treatment and healthy brain growth. Today there are proven practices for treating the unique needs of young people with addiction that are equally effective for people who are "ready to quit" and those who are refusing to quit. Most treatment occurs in an outpatient setting and involves the help and support of the teen's family.
Teen substance use is no "gray matter." The facts are black and white about the dangers to growth and development and consequences of inhibited decision making at such an impressionable time of life. Start talking with your teen today and let them know that this is not a gray area, no drug or alcohol use is okay. Your support of their brain health and overall wellness will have long lasting rewards.
Dennis Ballinger, LMFT, is the manager of Child and Family Services at Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network.