Ray Estefania: Marijuana legalization is bad for kids


Published: Friday, February 21, 2014 at 3:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 21, 2014 at 3:15 p.m.

We are being bombarded lately with much misinformation about marijuana, as legalization makes its way across the country. It’s big business, and those with a vested interest in it would like us to believe this is good for our communities, but is it good for our kids? Many states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use and Colorado and Washington recently passed laws allowing recreational use. This issue will be up to Florida voters to decide this November. So what is a parent to do about this controversial issue?

Recently, New Yorker magazine reported on President Obama’s downplay of marijuana by saying, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” The comments, while true, are misleading. A World Health Organization study in 2011 found alcohol responsible for 4 percent of deaths worldwide (2.5 million people). While marijuana may not kill like alcohol, it can have very negative consequences. Making a comparison like this one minimizes the harmful effects of a substance becoming more acceptable and available to our children.

Currently, marijuana is illegal under federal law but a number of states have legalized its medicinal use and more recently, recreational use. A recent CNN poll found that 55 percent of Americans favor some form of legalization. As a parent, counselor and addiction specialist of 20 years, this concerns me greatly!

Marijuana today is not the same drug it was 30 years ago. It is more potent, increasing the potential to impair a teen’s judgment, often leading to dependency and other drug use. Some studies suggest marijuana’s potency has increased 8-10 times, increasing the potential for addiction.

Young people are more susceptible to addiction because their developing brains are not capable of moderating the drug’s use and abuse. Marijuana is responsible for the most adolescent drug treatment admissions in this country and it is the second most abused substance overall, behind alcohol. It is not the harmless, non-addictive substance many legalization supporters would like us to believe it is, particularly for young people.

Other possible long-term effects of marijuana use are cognitive impairment, problems with memory, attention, concentration and coordination. Additional effects include decreased school and work performance, increased truancy and school dropout and a higher incidence of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Increasingly, young people are being admitted to emergency departments suffering from psychotic episodes related to heavy marijuana use.

They can experience changes in personality, behavior and increased isolation. A study in New Zealand found that persistent cannabis use during adolescence was associated with a drop in IQ of up to 8 points later in adulthood. Prolonged use can have a devastating impact on self-esteem, happiness and overall success in life.

Kids constantly receive messages that marijuana is not harmful, nor addictive. It is legal in many states, so it must not be that bad. Deaths related to heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs are shocking, yet we may not realize these individuals often began smoking marijuana.

Unfortunately, I come across many parents who do not understand the severity of this issue and believe it is “a phase” or “a rite of passage”. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just what kids do and it will be OK. Marijuana addiction can be more difficult to treat because of the denial associated with it. Users may experience a more gradual decline than those who abuse more dangerous drugs, but it is a decline nonetheless.

Legalization will create more availability, a decreased perception of harm and more challenging terrain for parents and kids to navigate. Let’s do the loving and responsible thing for our children by not allowing marijuana to become more prevalent and accepted in our community.

Most of us want nothing more than for our kids to grow up safe, healthy and drug free with the tools necessary to be successful in life. Hopefully parents will give this issue careful and thoughtful consideration before jumping on the marijuana legalization bandwagon.

Ray Estefania is an addiction specialist and co-founder and executive director of Family Recovery Specialists, a Miami-based treatment program and recovery practice.

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