Marijuana

How Much Pot Does It Take to Turn Teenagers Into Suicidal Dropouts?

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Many people, including the president of the United States, smoked pot in high school but nevertheless managed to graduate, earn college degrees, and lead reasonably happy and successful lives. If you are one of those people, or if you know some of them, you may be skeptical of a new study linking even occasional adolescent marijuana consumption to academic failure, addiction, and attempted suicide. Maybe you and your friends were just lucky, or maybe these results are misleading. More the latter, it turns out.

The study, reported last week in The Lancet Psychiatry, found that people who smoke pot as teenagers are more likely than people who don't to drop out of high school, become dependent on cannabis, use other illegal drugs, and attempt suicide. The associations were strongest for those who smoked pot the most.

The researchers, led by Edmund Silins of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Sydney, Australia, found that subjects who smoked pot daily before age 17 (a pattern of use that is far from common) were 63 percent less likely to finish high school than subjects who abstained, 62 percent less likely to earn a college degree, 18 times as likely to be dependent on cannabis as adults, eight times as likely to use other drugs, and seven times as likely to attempt suicide. By comparison, subjects who smoked pot less often than monthly before 17 were 22 percent less likely than nontokers to finish high school, 22 percent less likely to earn a college degree, twice as likely to be dependent on cannabis as adults, 67 percent more likely to use other drugs, and 62 percent more likely to attempt suicide.

Silins et al. call these outcomes "psychosocial sequelae of adolescent cannabis use," and some press coverage of the study likewise has portrayed them as consequences of marijuana consumption. But the causal role of cannabis is not nearly as clear as these accounts imply.

It surely is plausible that teenagers who get stoned every day, like teenagers who get drunk every day, would have trouble doing well in school because they are intoxicated when they are supposed to be learning. But that observation leaves unanswered the question of why some teenagers, but not others, choose to get stoned every day. The propensity to engage in that sort of behavior may be a marker for characteristics that independently undermine academic performance.

The researchers tried to account for that possibility by adjusting their results for various confounding variables—factors other than marijuana use that may contribute to the observed associations. They say they adjusted for 53 confounding variables, which sounds impressively thorough. But their data—based on samples ranging from 2,537 to 3,765 subjects, depending on the outcome reported—are drawn from three different studies in Australia and New Zealand, each of which measured a subset of those 53 variables. The number of variables reported in those studies actually ranged from 14 to 21.

More important, it is unlikely that these measures, which include childhood behavior problems, grades in elementary school, attention difficulties noted by parents, and self-reports of depression and anti-social behavior, adequately account for the combination of apathy, alienation, boredom, frustration, and rebelliousness that might lead a teenager to get high instead of paying attention in school and doing his homework. While intoxication itself may be a barrier to learning, the psychological factors that encourage intoxication probably play a role as well. Likewise, the emotional issues that motivate frequent intoxication, issues that may have gone undetected by the measures used in this study, could make people more prone to suicide.

Such hard-to-measure variables may be especially important in understanding the associations between relatively light cannabis consumption and bad outcomes. While it's quite plausible that a kid who routinely comes to school stoned would have trouble learning the skills and absorbing the information he needs to graduate, it is hard to believe that smoking pot a few times a year would in itself reduce a teenager's odds of graduating by 22 percent, let alone that it would make him 62 percent more likely to attempt suicide as an adult.

Washington Post blogger Christopher Ingraham notes some other complications related to marijuana's legal status and the way pot smokers are treated:

If a teacher knows or even suspects that a certain kid is using drugs, that may predispose the teacher against that student. "Teachers are very likely to stigmatize drug users," says Joseph Palamar, co-author of another recent study comparing teen marijuana and alcohol use. "That stereotype gives kids problems, and that kid's not gonna want to go to class."

Palamar also says that because marijuana "is an illegal drug, you have to buy it in an illegal manner, and then you're exposed to the black market. Marijuana use is affiliating you with other kids, some of whom might be problematic—people more likely to question authority. You become affiliated with things that might have a negative impact on your education."

Moreover, Palamar's research shows that because of marijuana's legal status, teen cannabis users are much more likely to get into trouble with the police than teen alcohol users. And in many cases, if you have a drug conviction on your record, you become ineligible for college aid. "If you get caught with drugs, you're not able to go to college," he told me.

In short, while it is hard to dispute that early and frequent marijuana use can cause problems, such behavior is part of a complicated psychosocial web that is difficult to untangle with the methods used in this study. And while prohibitionists are bound to cite this study as an argument against legalization, the question of whether teenagers should smoke pot is clearly distinct from the question of whether adults who do so (or the people who help them) should be arrested and punished.

As NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told HealthDay, "There is little debate among experts that the use of cannabis by young people, in particular daily use of cannabis, ought to be discouraged, just as young people's use of other potentially problematic intoxicants, such as alcohol and tobacco, ought to similarly be discouraged." But that does not mean prohibition is a good way to accomplish that goal. "The presumption that criminalizing cannabis adequately prevents or limits young people from gaining access to cannabis is demonstrably false," Armentano said. "Criminalizing cannabis for adults has little if any impact on reducing teens' access [to] or consumption of the plant."

I am not completely convinced of that last point. Some consequences of legalization—retailers who card, for instance—work against underage consumption. But others, such as lower prices and readier availability for adults who may be willing to share their purchases with minors, could increase underage access. Whatever the net effect, the special vulnerabilities of adolescents do not justify treating adults like children.

[This post originally appeared at Forbes.com.]

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  1. I didn’t see discussed (my apologies if I missed it) one other likely possibility – that depressed / suicidal teens are more likely to smoke pot. In other words, there is an actual correlation, but it’s reversed from the one in the Lancet.

    1. You beat me to it. I wash going to use the guy who drinks heavily to forget his problems and then finally offs himself. It wasn’t the alcohol it was his life that was the problem.

      1. but FM, it can’t be his life, because the Government has been there to help him! To say that maybe his life sucked is to accuse the Govt of failing to provide. Obviously that can’t be the case!

        1. You’re right, I’m sorry government, it’s just this war and that lying Johnson Obama.

        2. If memory serves, Nicholas Sarkozy said that owning a gun was an insult to the state, as it implied that you did not trust the government to protect you.

          1. Did he also say, “L’etat, es moi” ?

  2. ..but the causality is reversed from what was presented in the Lancet.

    1. That was my take, as well.

      But, of course, admitting that teenagers with psych issues are self-medicating raises the question of why they need to self-medicate, and that takes you straight to what a shitty job our enormous panoply of “care-givers” is doing.

  3. JUST ONE TOKE AND YOU’RE ADDICTED TO CRACK/HEROIN/BATH SALTS! Drugs are bad, mmkay?

    1. Wait, I’ve smoked pot before. I must be racist, and therefore my comment is invalid.

    2. +1 Brewer and Shipley

  4. You mean to tell me that severely depressed teenagers may use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to cope and self-medicate? Yeah, it’s the pot causing the problem, not pre-existing conditions resulting in pot use. *eyeroll*

    1. I’m inclined to think that if a person does not become severely depressed at least once as a teenager then maybe that person has a psychological problem.

      1. I had a pretty good childhood because I had absentee parents and was left to run wild. I probably would have become a mass shooter with helicopter parents.

        1. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good childhood too (for being so piss broke). Teenagers get depressed. I think that’s a law somewhere.

          1. I had a good childhood, too. But I was pretty severely depressed between 18 and 20. Of course, that could have been the after effects of a traumatic auto accident/severe head wound. I didn’t really smoke pot either.

            1. Maybe you should’ve.

        2. I had a pretty good childhood because I had present, involved parents who nonetheless left us to run wild outside of doctor’s appointments, school and family trips, where we would have to travel in the same vehicle to some other destination where we were then allowed to run wild again until it was time to return home. I definitely wouldn’t be as well-adjusted if I’d had helicopter parents.

  5. A problem with “studies” like this that are obviously politically motivated bullshit, is that they make legitimate studies difficult to believe. If there are any that is.

    1. There aren’t any legitimate sociological studies because sociology is a bullshit field. It’s Tarot with better PR. John Edward’s backup career was sociology.

  6. I dunno man, like whatever, that’s just your opinion.

  7. The real problem with this study isn’t even that kids are self-medicating.

    The problem with it is that “Don’t smoke marijuana!” is an arbitrary rule advanced by the social power structure in which these kids live.

    It is utterly unsurprising that kids who obey this arbitrary rule are much more likely to complete other task sets that require them to obey entire suites of arbitrary rules.

    To actually test the theory that the “social scientists” here want to test, we’d have to run a control where smoking marijuana was a legal prerequisite for getting admitted to college. Under that particular arrangement, I’m sure we’d see high correlations between marijuana use and academic achievement.

  8. While I can appreciate the value in debunking junk science, especially when it’s used to advocate for government interventions, this misses the point entirely.

    If we just accept, hypothetically, that pot is harmful to everyone, every time they smoke it, it comes nowhere close to justifying it’s prohibition. Freedom isn’t freedom if all the bad choices are removed. Dickering over the minutia of what harms are possible or even likely from smoking pot isn’t even remotely related to the question of the morality of hunting people like animals and violently pursuing extreme punishment for those who choose it.

    Drugs can only harm others if secretly administered without consent. Of course that should be illegal. Harming one’s self to any degree, should be within one’s rights, without question. Harming an individual in order to preempt his harming of himself is about as illogical and immoral as anything can be.

    What about if someone gets stoned and recklessly harms another? Recklessly harming another is no different if it’s due to intoxication than to any other reason. Recklessly harming others should be prohibited, regardless of the manner in which it’s done.

    That is the real issue with prohibition. Not the degree which drugs, any and all, cause harm to freely consenting users.

  9. How Much Pot Does It Take to Turn Teenagers Into Suicidal Dropouts?

    More than a shitload, because that’s how much I smoked as a teenager, and I was neither suicidal nor a dropout.

  10. No it takes less than 1 oz to turn you into a suicidal dropout if the cop arresting you, cripples you. Or maybe the arrest record keeps you from continuing your education or keeps you from getting a good job.

    Oh, you mean how much do you have to smoke?

  11. Aside from inherent psychological problems, government style schooling is known to induce boredom, depression, and even rebellion in young people.
    They may be self medicating to cope with school.

  12. Frowning, crying, and seeking therapy are all heavily correlated to depression and suicide. If the government were just to ban frowns and tears, imagine how many sad people they could save!

  13. Maybe it’s the lack of freedom, not the pot.

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