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Cannabis: It matters how young you start

What a difference a year or two can make: If you started smoking marijuana at the start of your teens, your risk of having a drug abuse problem by age 28 is 68 per cent, but if you started smoking between 15 and 17 your risk drops to 44 per cent, according to a new study by Université de Montréal researchers.

All the more reason, they say, to educate kids early, in primary school, about the risks of starting pot smoking, especially now that the potency is much greater than it was in decades past and that public acceptance is being spurred by legalization in jurisdictions such as Canada.

“The odds of developing any drug abuse symptoms by age 28 were reduced by 31 per cent for each year of delayed onset of cannabis use in adolescence,” the researchers at UdeM’s Department of Psychology, School of Psychoeducation and the CHU Saint-Justine Hospital Research Centre found.

Their study was publishedApril 22 in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Percentage nearly tripled

According to a 2011 study by University of Waterloo researchers in the journal Addictive Behaviors, 10 per cent of Canadian adolescents consumed cannabis in Grade 8. By Grade 12, that percentage nearly tripled to 29 per cent. Early-onset cannabis use has been linked to further drug abuse problems later in life.

The new study, done by UdM doctoral student Charlie Rioux under the supervision of professors Natalie Castellanos-Ryan and Jean Séguin, shows just how much.

The researchers looked at data for 1,030 boys in the Montreal Longitudinal and Experimental Study of white francophones from some of the city’s impoverished neighbourhoods begun in the early 1980s. Every year between ages 13 and 17, the boys were asked if they had consumed cannabis at all in the previous year.

At 17, and again at 20 and 28, they were asked not only whether they consumed cannabis, but also other drugs, including hallucinogens, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, tranquilizers, heroin and inhalants. Then the data were correlated with the age at which they started using cannabis.

Double the chance if frequent use

The results confirmed the researchers’ suspicions: the younger they started, the more likely the boys had a drug problem later as young men. This is partly explained by the frequency with which they consumed cannabis and other drugs, but those who started before age 15 were at higher risk regardless of how often they consumed.

“The odds of developing any drug abuse symptoms by age 28 were non-significant if cannabis use had its onset at ages 15 to 17, but were significant and almost doubled each year if onset was before age 15,” the study says. Even if those who start smoking cannabis at 17 years were at lower risk, frequent users (20 or more times a year) at age 17 had almost double the chance of abuse by age 28 than occasional users.

And that may be underestimating the problem, the researchers say.

“Notably, considering that the potency of cannabis products increased over the last two decades and that [inthis study] adolescent cannabis use was assessed from 1991 to 1995, it is possible that the higher content of ?-9-tetrahydrocannabinol in the cannabis available today would be associated with higher rates of drug abuse symptoms.”

Gangs, thievery, drinking

The researchers also found that the earlier that boys were involved in gangs, drank alcohol, got into fights, stole or vandalized property, the earlier they used cannabis and the higher their odds of having drug abuse issues by 28. Those who started drinking at 17 also were at higher risk of having an alcohol problem at 28.

The finding that starting pot smoking between ages 13 and 15 increases the odds of developing a drug problem later on makes it all the more important to prevent or reducing cannabis use as early as possible, the researchers say.

“It may be important to implement these programs by the end of elementary school to prevent early onset of cannabis use,” said Rioux. “Since peer influence and delinquency were identified as early risk factors for earlier cannabis onset and adult drug abuse, targeting these risk factors in prevention programs may be important, especially since prevention strategies working on the motivators of substance use have been shown to be effective.”

Researchers find that boys who start smoking pot before 15 are much more likely to have a drug problem at 28 than those who start at 15 or after.

At What Age Do Children Generally Start Smoking Pot?

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Andrea Rice is an award-winning journalist and a freelance writer, editor, and fact checker specializing in health and wellness.

A hallmark of being a teen is the drive to experiment and push boundaries. Sometimes, that means trying drugs. When it comes to marijuana, on average, kids who smoke pot tend to start between the ages of 12 and 16.  

Smoking Pot by the Numbers

It isn’t surprising that many teens try pot as it is popularly considered less dangerous than “harder” drugs (like cocaine or heroin), and marijuana is used recreationally by many adults. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that pot is one of the most commonly used drugs by Americans.   And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 2.5% of the world’s population uses the substance.  

So how many teens are smoking pot? The National Institute of Drug Abuse study, Monitoring the Future, found that 6.6% of eighth-graders had smoked marijuana or hashish in the past month, while 11.8% had smoked in the past year. By 10th grade, those numbers jump to 18.4% and 28.8%, respectfully. By senior year, 22.3% reported marijuana use in the past month, while 35.7% had smoked pot in the past year.  

According to a 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study, about 3.1 million teens, aged 12 to 17, which adds up to 12.5% of all teens (or 1 in 8 teens), had smoked pot in the prior year. These numbers have held steady over the past few years.  

The Influence of Others

The marked increase in use between 8th and 10th grade teens (from nearly 12% to almost 30%) is significant, because research tells us that peer usage is one of the main reasons that teens begin to smoke marijuana.   Teens who have siblings, other relatives, or friends who do drugs are more likely to try drugs themselves than adolescents who do not have drug-using friends.

The transition between middle school and high school also leads to new disruptions and stressors for kids that can make drug experimentation more likely. These changes include new schools, new friends, new pressures, the desire to fit in, and different expectations.

The influence that others have on teen substance use is not limited to their peers in school. Teens whose parents drink, smoke cigarettes, or smoke marijuana are also more likely to try those behaviors.  

Availability of Pot Is a Key Factor

Children who live in neighborhoods where drugs are sold openly or who go to schools where their peers sell drugs are significantly more likely to begin smoking pot at an earlier age.   Researchers have also found that if teens believe that their peers approve of drug use, they will be more likely to use drugs themselves at an early age. This is because that positive perception tends to “normalize” recreational drug use.  

Additionally, many states have now made recreational marijuana use legal for those 21 and over, making use among adults (as well as the many pot storefronts and ads) much more noticeable, which garners unspoken acceptability.

A double-whammy of cultural permissiveness and easy access to drugs also contribute to earlier initiation ages and a larger proportion of kids using drugs.

Other Reasons Kids Use Drugs

In his book, How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can’t, Dr. Neil I. Bernstein identifies more reasons, beyond mere availability, peer pressure, and acceptability, that kids try drugs and alcohol:  

  • Popular media
  • Escape and self-medication
  • Boredom
  • Rebellion
  • Instant gratification
  • Lack of confidence
  • Misinformation

Consequences of Early-Onset Drug Use

Experts—and even many marijuana legalization proponents—agree that the later teens begin using marijuana, the better.   This is because teenage brains are still developing, a process that isn’t complete until around age 25. Smoking pot before all the brain’s pathways have matured can inhibit the development of executive function. The earlier kids begin to smoke pot, the more likely they are to experience cognitive problems.  

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, children who engaged in weekly marijuana use before age 18 displayed lasting harm to their intelligence, attention, and memory compared with those who began using marijuana after age 18.  

Research has suggested that quitting or reducing marijuana use was not able to restore cognitive function that was damaged by regular marijuana use.  

What’s more, a comprehensive review during 2011 found that people who started smoking pot before adulthood experienced significant damage to their cognitive function, impacting many areas including memory, response time, language skills, and executive function.  

Additionally, studies have shown a strong link between marijuana use and the development of psychological conditions.   Research has also confirmed that, despite popular opinion, smoking pot can be addictive.  

A Word From Verywell

While the numbers on teen pot use may seem unsettling, it’s important to note that the majority of kids aren’t smoking marijuana. But if your child is experimenting, don’t despair. While the health risks of sustained pot use, particularly early in life, are substantial, if your child tries it once, twice, or even occasionally, the damage is likely minimal—though studies have shown that even occasional use can still potentially impair decision-making, concentration, attention, and memory.  

The key is to talk to your child. Discuss your concerns and the very real brain health risks—and listen to what they have to say. If you feel the situation requires additional intervention, consult with your child’s doctor, a drug counselor, or other experts to access resources that can help.

On average, kids start smoking pot at age 16, but recent surveys point to the transition between middle school and high school as an inflection point.