Marijuana Use: We Need a “Higher” Age Limit

Age limits on marijuana use need to consider how the human brain develops.

Posted Feb 10, 2014

I write a lot about marijuana use and abuse. This is partially because of the conversation going on in our society regarding the risks and benefits of marijuana legalization for medicinal and recreational use, in part because I am an addiction treatment professional, and in part because I abused marijuana daily as a young person (ages 12 – 27) and experience deficits from that abuse in my day to day life – deficits I hope to help others avoid.

I want to state clearly that I have no preference as to whether or not marijuana is legal or illegal. In my experience as the CEO and founder of Cliffside Malibu addiction treatment center, people abuse the substance(s) they prefer, whether legal or not. Alcohol, a substance that is both legal and widely available, is the most regularly abused drug in the nation, causing losses of over $200 billion per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while cigarette smoking does not cause the same kind of damage as the addictions we treat at Cliffside Malibu, according to the American Lung Association, cigarette smoking is the number one cause of preventable death and disease worldwide; approximately 20% of American adults smoke. Nearly 70% began smoking at or before the legal age limit of eighteen. In short, whether drugs are legal or illegal, they have the potential to cause tremendous harm if abused. Most people start their habituated use long before the legal age at which they can make those decisions with full regard for the outcomes.

In my Cliffside Malibu column, I have written about the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist at UCLA, and his insights into the development of the human brain. His research is explicit; people under the age of 25 do not have the capacity to make sound decisions about substance use or abuse. Their brains are still developing. With regard to marijuana, the logical conclusion to his argument is that the legal age for marijuana use, if a legal use age is to be established, is 25 years old, after the brain has completed its development.

Recent studies support this logic. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) studies trends in drug use among young people. Marijuana use is up among 8th, 10th and 12th grade students, at its highest levels since the 1980s. At the same time, student perceptions that marijuana is safe or at least not harmful, are also growing. NIDA writes about this early use and its trend toward addiction:

Long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction; that is, people have difficulty controlling their drug use and cannot stop even though it interferes with many aspects of their lives. It is estimated that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it. The number goes up to about 1 in 6 in those who start using young (in their teens) and to 25-50 percent among daily users.

It is clear that teens and young adults do not have the biological capacity to make quality decisions about their health and well-being, with regard to drug use, until the age of twenty-five. No matter what choices communities and states make, we must be sure that we fully understand the repercussions of our actions. This means implementing strong anti-abuse campaigns among young people as we did with anti-smoking and anti-DUI efforts. Kids have shown us that they are going to use marijuana before their brains are capable of appreciating the consequences. We have to prevent as much of that abuse as we can.