Marijuana: What Parents Should Know

Adults over the age of 21 in Maine will soon be able to legally possess and use marijuana. Many parents have questions about potential risks for children and young adults. That’s why MaineHealth wants to provide important information about marijuana use, effects, risks and safety. Our health care professionals are available to help you: 

  • Understand the risks of marijuana exposure for children and young adults
  • Have important conversations about marijuana use with your children
  • Get answers to common questions about marijuana safety

The legalization of marijuana in other states has created an industry around new marijuana products, such as prepared foods and sweets containing marijuana called edibles. Strong forms of marijuana, such as oils, waxes and salves/lotions are also gaining popularity. It is important to know that marijuana plants used today (and the products made with them) are more than twice as strong as the marijuana that people from past generations may have smoked and used. The strength of today’s marijuana means more negative health effects on teenagers and young adults who use it.

Important Marijuana Facts

  • Marijuana use by people under the age of 25 directly impacts brain development, and increases the risk of ongoing problems with attention, learning, memory, and dealing with emotions.
  • Marijuana produced today is stronger than it has ever been. The average amount of THC in marijuana seized by the government in 1995 was 4%. That has since increased to about 12% in 2014.
  • Studies have shown that if an adolescent uses cannabis before the age of 16, and for a prolonged period, it can lead to a number of significant health problems.1
  • Teen cannabis users are more likely to become addicted to cannabis than people who start using the drug when they are older.1

Frequently Asked Questions About Marijuana & Children

How does marijuana affect the developing brain?

Birth to adolescence is a crucial time for brain development. Your child’s brain is learning to do important things like communicate, respond to stress and manage emotions. Healthy brain development ensures they have the skills they need to do these things well and keep them healthy. Due to this ongoing development, this is also an important time to prevent exposure to addictive substances, such as marijuana, to help their brains develop to their full potential.

Young people who use marijuana regularly could develop long-term problems. That's because the brain is still developing until the age of 25. Repeated use of marijuana, drugs and/or alcohol changes their brain. The younger a person starts using marijuana, the more problems he or she may have throughout life.

Young people are vulnerable to risky situations.
The brain is built like a house, constructed over time. All people are born with a blueprint and a set timeline for building. While all people are born with the blueprint for a developed brain, experiences and relationships determine how well the brain gets built. The way the brain is built leaves plenty of room for growth. By design, young people have flexible and curious brains that allow them to learn a lot, but this design also makes them open to risky situations.

A young person’s reward center develops by about age 13 and is activated by exciting and risky events. The part of the brain controlling judgement and reason doesn’t fully develop until age 25, therefore adolescents aren't able to fully process the long-term effects that their choices may have later on in life. Young people are looking for new experiences but cannot yet fully understand all of the results of their actions. This explains why they have a hard time making healthy decisions. Young people are also very sensitive to stress. Because the frontal lobe is not fully developed, they can’t access reason to control their emotions and manage their stress.

Marijuana use may inhibit a child's natural ability to relax.
Young people who believe marijuana will help them relax and relieve stress are more likely to encounter problems with use. While marijuana may initially help young people feel relaxed or less anxious, over time marijuana use changes teens’ brains making it harder for them to relax without it. Teens who use marijuana are more likely to experience anxiety or depression than those who do not use. It is important for parents to talk to their children about how they deal with stress and help them find ways to cope with stress without using substances, such as marijuana. If you have more questions, talk to your children’s health care provider.

Read more from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard.

What should I do if a child swallows a marijuana product?

Children who swallow a marijuana product can become very sleepy and have trouble breathing. In really bad cases, you may not be able to wake the child up. If you think a child has swallowed a marijuana product, call the Northern New England Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for fast advice. A poison specialist will tell you what to do at home and whether you need to take the child to the hospital. In most cases, if a child has swallowed marijuana products, including food or drink, they will need to be watched at a hospital.

For more information, visit the Northern New England Poison Center website.

What is marijuana poisoning?

Marijuana poisonings are on the rise in Maine and across the nation. Marijuana produced today is stronger than it has ever been, meaning that there could be more severe marijuana poisonings in young children, teens, and adults.

Marijuana poisoning in children is increasing with availability. It mostly happens with children 12 and younger, who accidentally ingest marijuana or products containing THC. Edible products are most commonly the form responsible, usually in the form of marijuana-infused cookies, brownies or other candy. Cookies or other food products may be indistinguishable from 'regular' food.

The Northern New England Poison Center reports a rise in the number of patients under 6 years old treated at Maine Medical Center for marijuana-related poisonings from 2013-15. They also report more marijuana poisonings among all age groups across Maine from 2013-2017, with the biggest rise in children 0-5 years old. Common symptoms of marijuana poisoning are excessive sleepiness, dizziness, and trouble walking.

What is medical marijuana? How is it different from recreational marijuana?

Medical marijuana is a term used to describe the raw marijuana plant (or a product with marijuana plant chemicals in it) when used to treat a health condition. The chemicals unique to marijuana are called cannabinoids. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the main cannabinoids used in medicine. The THC chemical has the strongest psychoactive effect and produces the “high” associated with marijuana. CBD does not produce any psychoactive effects, though there have been reports of non-Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated products labeled as “CBD” seeming to contain THC. Like recreational marijuana, medical marijuana strains contain both THC and CBD at varying levels.

The marijuana plant and other cannabinoid products have become legalized for medical use and for recreational use in certain states such as Maine. However, marijuana is prohibited at the federal level, which is one reason why its use as a medicine has not been well-studied. So far, there is not yet enough evidence to show that the benefits of the marijuana plant outweigh its negative effects on the developing brains and bodies of children and teenagers.

The marijuana plant has not been approved by the FDA as a medicine. However, the FDA has approved four medicines that have synthetic cannabinoids in pill form. These drugs are called dronabinol and nabilone, and are both used to treat vomiting and nausea and increase hunger. They have also been used as a treatment to reduce pain and make symptoms less severe for children with cancer and epilepsy. The FDA has also approved a drug called Epidiolex that contains the purified substance cannabidiol (CBD), for the treatment of seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy in patients two years of age and older.

There are few government regulations on medical marijuana in Maine, so the active ingredient strength may vary widely among non-FDA approved products. Talk to your health care provider if you have any questions.

Is marijuana addictive?

Research shows that marijuana is addictive. It is thought that using marijuana at a younger age, along with the new higher strength of the drug, can lead to more addiction. Marijuana use becomes addiction when the person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life.

Greater Risk for Teenagers
The younger a person is when he or she starts using marijuana, the higher their risk for addiction. One out of six people who start using marijuana as a teen become addicted.

What is marijuana use disorder?

Marijuana use disorder is a term used to describe problem use, which takes the form of addiction in severe cases. Marijuana use disorders are typically associated with a dependence on marijuana, which means a person’s brain adapts to large amounts of the drug and needs it just to feel “normal”. Dependence is when a person feels physical withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug. People who begin using marijuana before age 18 are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop dependence. Research suggests that 30% of people who use marijuana may develop some degree of marijuana use disorder.

When Dependence Becomes Addiction
Dependence becomes addiction when a person can’t stop using marijuana even though it negatively impacts his or her daily life. Many people who use marijuana for a long time and then try to quit have withdrawal symptoms that make quitting difficult. These symptoms include:

  • Grouchiness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Smaller appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings

The Cannabis Use Disorder Identification Test is a tool you can use to assess whether you are showing signs of addiction – find it here.

The CRAFFT Screening Interview is a behavioral health screening tool designed for children under the age of 21. Recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Substance Abuse for use with adolescents, the screening tool consists of a series of six questions intended to identify adolescents who may have simultaneous risky alcohol and other drug use disorders. It is a short, effective tool meant to assess whether a longer conversation about the context of use, frequency, and other risks and consequences of alcohol and other drug use is warranted. Learn more.

What is the difference between eating and smoking marijuana?

The THC intake from smoking marijuana takes effect quickly, with the onset of symptoms within 5-30 minutes. Edibles are marijuana products that can be eaten. They often look exactly like regular sweet treats such as:

  • Baked goods
  • Snack foods
  • Desserts
  • Chocolate bars
  • Candies
  • Sweetened beverages

A single edible may have a much higher amount of THC than the standard adult dose. The amount of THC in edibles is also unpredictable, so you may take more than you realize or intend to. The THC in edibles takes 30 minutes to 2 hours to produce symptoms, and the symptoms can last a few hours longer than after smoking. This increases the risk of swallowing too much before feeling the effects and could cause an overdose.

Marijuana edibles are the most common cause of marijuana poisoning for children under the age of 6. The American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that marijuana can be a danger to the health of children and adolescents in any form. 

How can I talk to my child about marijuana, even if I currently use it, or have in the past?

Be honest without going into too many details. It may help your child feel more comfortable talking to you about drugs and related issues. You can explain that there is a lot more information and evidence on the negative impact of marijuana use on children’s brains than there was five or 10 years ago. The amount of THC in marijuana that was seized by the government has increased from about 4% in 1995 to about 12% in 2014. Giving your child the information to make important decisions is very empowering for them.

Try to do less of the talking instead of lecturing. Ask questions to discover more about what your child values, which develops strong relationships. When we tell a young person they can’t go to a place where drugs such as marijuana might be available, we may be taking away what they value most right now – hanging out with their friends. Work with your child on developing phrases to use when refusing marijuana and practice the phrases with them.

Click to view a helpful guide for parents about talking to children about marijuana.

Read more here about how to talk to kids about marijuana use. 

How can I safely keep marijuana in the home?

If you plan to use marijuana:

Is it safe to use marijuana while pregnant or breastfeeding?

Marijuana is not safe to use during pregnancy. 

No. When you are pregnant and you use marijuana, so does your baby. Marijuana passes through the placenta into a baby’s blood. When babies are exposed to marijuana during pregnancy, they can test positive for the drug and experience withdrawal symptoms after they are born. Studies show that marijuana use during pregnancy:

  • May cause your baby to be born before his or her body is ready. This could mean serious health problems at birth and throughout life.
  • Could change how your baby’s brain develops. These changes may cause life-long behavior problems like trouble paying attention or following rules.
  • May impact your child’s learning and memory in school.

There is no known safe amount of marijuana use during pregnancy. Make the safest choice for you and your baby. Avoid using marijuana when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Marijuana is not safe to use while breastfeeding.  

Using marijuana while you breastfeed is not healthy for your baby and it is not recommended. Here are some of the reasons not to use marijuana while you breastfeed:

  • THC, a psychoactive chemical in marijuana, gets into your breast milk and then into your baby’s body.
  • When you use marijuana, the THC stays in your body fat, blood, and breast milk for up to 30 days. This means it can build up in your baby’s body over time. Your baby could also test positive for THC.
  • Using marijuana may cause problems with feeding your baby. It can lower your milk supply. It can also make your baby less willing to eat. This could lead to not enough, slow weight gain.
  • Marijuana may affect how your baby’s brain grows and develops.
  • Some studies show that babies exposed to THC in breast milk may have a higher risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). 

Give your baby a healthy start in life. Breastfeeding is such a healthy choice for you and your baby. Using marijuana while breastfeeding is not. Ask your baby’s health care provider about the risks of marijuana compared to the benefits of breastfeeding to help you make the best choice for you and your baby.

If you have been using marijuana during pregnancy, stopping now will help lower the risks to your baby.

Call the Maine Office of Substance Abuse at 207-287-2595 for help. All information will be kept completely confidential. Maine substance abuse treatment providers will treat any pregnant woman who needs services before other people who call the office. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength.

For more information:
• Call the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services at 207-287-2595
• Dial 2-1-1 from any phone in Maine
• Visit www.211maine.org

National Academies of Sciences Review 2017 – The health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids: The current state of evidence and recommendations for research DOI 10.17226/24625

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Recommendations about Marijuana

Given the data supporting the negative health and brain development effects of marijuana in children and adolescents, ages 0 through 21 years, the AAP is opposed to marijuana use in this population.

The AAP opposes medical marijuana outside the regulatory process of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Notwithstanding this opposition to use, the AAP recognizes that marijuana may currently be an option for cannabinoid administration for children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions and for whom current therapies are inadequate. The AAP opposes legalization of marijuana because of the potential harms to children and adolescents.

Get Help to Quit

If you or someone you know is having a hard time with substance use:

  • Dial 2-1-1 from any phone in Maine or visit www.211maine.org
  • Call the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services: 207-287-2595
  • Call Day One for Teen Substance Abuse Treatment Programs: 207-767-0991 
Get Help

Talk to Your Kids

Marijuana is more potent and widely available than ever before. Explaining the risks to youth can be challenging. View a guide for parents about discussing marijuana with children and helping them make healthy decisions. View Guide

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