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High Season: Teens and Marijuana Use

Fear Factor

One reason many people have such a hard time discussing marijuana with their kids is that the case against it—at least compared with other drugs—isn't so clear cut. Pot is the least addictive of substances most often abused by teens, considerably less so than alcohol, cocaine, or heroin. Even parents who strongly disapprove of weed may put up with it because the effects on their kids are fairly benign. "Marijuana calms most people down and puts them to sleep," says Ken C. Winters, professor at the University of Minnesota Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research. "Alcohol makes people more violent and aggressive, and creates far more havoc."

On the other hand, pot can be extremely habit-forming, even among so-called casual users, according to Liz Jorgensen, a substance abuse therapist in Ridgefield, Connecticut. "In my decades of practice, I've found that very few kids will drink every day, but there's a considerable minority who will smoke every day," she says. And while it's a myth that marijuana users inevitably progress to hard drugs, studies have shown that very few teens develop serious drug habits without trying pot—and alcohol—first.

So how worried should parents be when they stumble across a pipe or other paraphernalia—or, like my wife and me, see a butane lighter fall out of their son's pocket? (Note: We knew he didn't smoke tobacco.) If there's a history of addiction, depression, or bipolar disorder in your extended family, you need to worry. Research has linked dependence on pot to genetic factors. If your child is hyperactive, anxious, or a compulsive risk-taker, you need to worry. Drugs are often a way for troubled teens to self-medicate. In a landmark California study of 100 kids who were tracked from ages 3 to 18, those who became the heaviest pot users had suffered from behavioral problems for years. Even in early elementary school, they coped poorly with stress, had low self-esteem, made few friends, and were often ostracized by classmates. In other words, dysfunction led to drug abuse, not the other way around.

Greg Williams was a case in point. He was diagnosed with hyperactivity as a toddler. His parents believed he'd outgrown it; after all, Greg did well enough in school and his instructors never complained. But inside, he says, "I was crippled with fear. I felt separate and disconnected from everyone else. I don't know why—there was no big trauma in my life. But there was always this spinning in my head, and pot was the only thing that stopped it. I liked what it did to me. It numbed the pain."