The Myth of Casual Marijuana Use

Legalizing marijuana sends mixed messages to and raises use questions for teens.

Posted Dec 30, 2014

For years, the lesson parents tried to instill in their children about marijuana and other drugs was to “Just say no.” Drugs were once universally bad. In recent times, the public conversation surrounding marijuana use has changed to debates over legalization and its medical benefits. The new discourse can be misleading and dangerous for impressionable teens.   

Even in states where marijuana is legal for the 21-and-over crowd, no governing body has condoned it for young people. That doesn’t mean the drug hasn’t grown more tempting.

As of the end of 2016, the use of both recreational and medicinal marijuana has been legalized in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine,Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. The number of states legalizing marijuana as well possession laws will probably change. At the time of writing, possession is considered either a misdemeanor offense or been completely decriminalized in over 30 states, and medical marijuana is legal in 23 states as well as in DC. In New York City, Mayor de Blasio recently implemented a new practice of issuing summonses and fines for possession of 25 grams or less instead of pressing criminal charges.

One study from the Partnership for Drug Free Kids reports that in the past, the biggest deterrent for teens was a fear of getting in trouble with the law or with their parents. Now that legal punishment is being minimized or disappearing, it's more important than ever for parents to step up and have a conversation with their teens and preteens. To young people, it may look like society is condoning marijuana use. Already some two million teens smoke pot.

Looking for a Middle Ground

Marc Aronoff walks a middle ground in his new book, One Toke: A Survival Guide For Teen, providing insight for both parents and young adults. While pointing out the potential hazards of drug use, Aronoff , who has worked with at risk youth for decades, also recognizes the reality that some teens will try pot. One Toke stresses the importance of moderation, knowing your own limits and keeping an honest and open dialogue between teens and parents. 

“This book is not about promoting or discouraging the smoking of marijuana. This is about the reality of smoking pot and harm reduction,” says Aronoff.

He points out that just as there are sex-ed classes for teens that aren’t supposed to be having sex; we need to educate them about marijuana even though they aren’t supposed to be smoking it. Because many are anyway, and the best solution may be to instill a sense of balance in them.

It’s progressive and healthy thinking, but it’s also indicative of our society’s changing views on the weed culture. 

The Myth of Casual Marijuana Use

The scientific community and Aronoff agree in two significant areas: Your brain doesn’t stop developing until you’re in your mid-twenties, and teens whose parents talk to them about pot are less likely to try it.

According to a Partnership for Drug Free Kids Attitude Tracking Study released in 2013, 44% of teens have tried marijuana at least once and 7% are frequent users (determined by the study to be those that use at least 20 times a month). The overwhelming majority of adults who are addicted to marijuana began in their teenage years.

Tim Ryan (a senior prevention specialist with “Freedom from Chemical Dependency” Educational Services, an antidrug group that works with students in the classroom) told The New York Times that when he speaks with young students about marijuana, he regularly asks them what they know about the drug. “It’s a plant,” used to be a common response.  Now they say, “It’s legal in Colorado.”

The claim that casual marijuana use is harmless is a myth. A recent study by Northwestern University used MRIs to measure the physical effect smoking pot can have on a developing brain. Findings indicate chronic marijuana users have smaller brain volume in the orbitofrontal cortex and increased brain connectivity. Other areas associated with motivation and emotions were also analyzed and shown to be affected. The study examined volume, shape and density of the grey matter; and the severity of the alterations were directly related to how much marijuana the subjects smoked.  Even casual marijuana use has been linked to lower IQs.  

The Northwestern study and others like it have not been able to conclusively pinpoint the exact long-term effects of marijuana use, but perhaps it is enough to know that the drug is capable of altering a developing brain at all. And, the effects are determined by when and how long the person has been using it. This means teens and younger people are more at risk for potentially negative side effects.

The emotional effects of smoking pot can potentially be as dangerous as the physical. "Drugs of abuse can cause more dopamine release than natural rewards like food, sex and social interaction," Jodi Gilman, author of the Northwestern study, found.  "In those you also get a burst of dopamine but not as much as in many drugs of abuse. That is why drugs take on so much salience, and everything else loses its importance."

Having “The Talk”

Parents are urged to be supportive and nurturing of their teens when faced with the issue of drug use. Aronoff warns against extreme punishment or emotional manipulation. Instead he stresses the importance of setting a good example by not being an abuser yourself and helping them make better decisions. If they are smoking, ask them why. It is important to makes sure your teens feel you are on their side, even though at the end of the day your word should be law.

In addressing his teen audience, Aronoff writes, “Skillful parents will let you know how they feel yet offer you their trust until you give them a reason not to. It is good to always keep in mind that your parents have a right to challenge and talk to you. That is their job, though you may not like it!”

Do you think that society’s changing laws and perception of marijuana are making it more attractive to young people?

Related: Are ‘Bath Salts’ Just Hype?; The Dangerous Game Your Kid May Be Playing


Aronoff, M. One Toke: A Survival Guide for Teens (1st ed.). Lenox , MA: Porterhouse Publications, 2014.

Francesca M. Filbey, Sina Aslan, Vince D. Calhoun, Jeffrey S. Spence, Eswar Damaraju, Arvind Caprihan, and Judith Segall. Long-term effects of marijuana use on the brain. PNAS, November 10, 2014 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1415297111

Gilman, J., Kuster, J., Lee, S., Lee, M., Kim, B., Makris, N., ... Breiter, H. (2014). “Cannabis Use is Quantitatively Associated with Nucleus Accumbens and Amygdala Abnormalities in Young Adult Recreational Users.” The Journal of Neuroscience. April 16, 2014.

Northwestern University. “Casual marijuana use linked to brain abnormalities in students: Dramatic effects of small time use; more 'joints' equal more damage.” ScienceDaily. April 15, 2014.

Parker-Pope, T. “Legal Marijuana for Parents, but Not Their Kids.” New York Times, August 18, 2014.

“Partnership for Drug-Free Kids” Attitude Tracking Study, 2013,

Copyright @ 2014 Susan Newman

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Photo credit: "Marijuana Leaf" by Paul