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At What Age Do Children Generally Start Smoking Pot?

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Andrea Rice is an award-winning journalist and a freelance writer, editor, and fact checker specializing in health and wellness.

A hallmark of being a teen is the drive to experiment and push boundaries. Sometimes, that means trying drugs. When it comes to marijuana, on average, kids who smoke pot tend to start between the ages of 12 and 16.  

Smoking Pot by the Numbers

It isn’t surprising that many teens try pot as it is popularly considered less dangerous than “harder” drugs (like cocaine or heroin), and marijuana is used recreationally by many adults. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that pot is one of the most commonly used drugs by Americans.   And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 2.5% of the world’s population uses the substance.  

So how many teens are smoking pot? The National Institute of Drug Abuse study, Monitoring the Future, found that 6.6% of eighth-graders had smoked marijuana or hashish in the past month, while 11.8% had smoked in the past year. By 10th grade, those numbers jump to 18.4% and 28.8%, respectfully. By senior year, 22.3% reported marijuana use in the past month, while 35.7% had smoked pot in the past year.  

According to a 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study, about 3.1 million teens, aged 12 to 17, which adds up to 12.5% of all teens (or 1 in 8 teens), had smoked pot in the prior year. These numbers have held steady over the past few years.  

The Influence of Others

The marked increase in use between 8th and 10th grade teens (from nearly 12% to almost 30%) is significant, because research tells us that peer usage is one of the main reasons that teens begin to smoke marijuana.   Teens who have siblings, other relatives, or friends who do drugs are more likely to try drugs themselves than adolescents who do not have drug-using friends.

The transition between middle school and high school also leads to new disruptions and stressors for kids that can make drug experimentation more likely. These changes include new schools, new friends, new pressures, the desire to fit in, and different expectations.

The influence that others have on teen substance use is not limited to their peers in school. Teens whose parents drink, smoke cigarettes, or smoke marijuana are also more likely to try those behaviors.  

Availability of Pot Is a Key Factor

Children who live in neighborhoods where drugs are sold openly or who go to schools where their peers sell drugs are significantly more likely to begin smoking pot at an earlier age.   Researchers have also found that if teens believe that their peers approve of drug use, they will be more likely to use drugs themselves at an early age. This is because that positive perception tends to “normalize” recreational drug use.  

Additionally, many states have now made recreational marijuana use legal for those 21 and over, making use among adults (as well as the many pot storefronts and ads) much more noticeable, which garners unspoken acceptability.

A double-whammy of cultural permissiveness and easy access to drugs also contribute to earlier initiation ages and a larger proportion of kids using drugs.

Other Reasons Kids Use Drugs

In his book, How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can’t, Dr. Neil I. Bernstein identifies more reasons, beyond mere availability, peer pressure, and acceptability, that kids try drugs and alcohol:  

  • Popular media
  • Escape and self-medication
  • Boredom
  • Rebellion
  • Instant gratification
  • Lack of confidence
  • Misinformation

Consequences of Early-Onset Drug Use

Experts—and even many marijuana legalization proponents—agree that the later teens begin using marijuana, the better.   This is because teenage brains are still developing, a process that isn’t complete until around age 25. Smoking pot before all the brain’s pathways have matured can inhibit the development of executive function. The earlier kids begin to smoke pot, the more likely they are to experience cognitive problems.  

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, children who engaged in weekly marijuana use before age 18 displayed lasting harm to their intelligence, attention, and memory compared with those who began using marijuana after age 18.  

Research has suggested that quitting or reducing marijuana use was not able to restore cognitive function that was damaged by regular marijuana use.  

What’s more, a comprehensive review during 2011 found that people who started smoking pot before adulthood experienced significant damage to their cognitive function, impacting many areas including memory, response time, language skills, and executive function.  

Additionally, studies have shown a strong link between marijuana use and the development of psychological conditions.   Research has also confirmed that, despite popular opinion, smoking pot can be addictive.  

A Word From Verywell

While the numbers on teen pot use may seem unsettling, it’s important to note that the majority of kids aren’t smoking marijuana. But if your child is experimenting, don’t despair. While the health risks of sustained pot use, particularly early in life, are substantial, if your child tries it once, twice, or even occasionally, the damage is likely minimal—though studies have shown that even occasional use can still potentially impair decision-making, concentration, attention, and memory.  

The key is to talk to your child. Discuss your concerns and the very real brain health risks—and listen to what they have to say. If you feel the situation requires additional intervention, consult with your child’s doctor, a drug counselor, or other experts to access resources that can help.

On average, kids start smoking pot at age 16, but recent surveys point to the transition between middle school and high school as an inflection point.

Scientists pinpoint the ideal legal age for smoking marijuana

There is an age that can beat back the black market, and minimize long-term impacts on the brain.

In the United States, you have to be 21-years-old before you can buy a cigarette, alcohol, or recreational marijuana. Unlike cigarettes and alcohol, the legal age for marijuana is decided by states and not the federal government. Why states have settled on 21 as the legal age, meanwhile, is a bit nebulous — some lawmakers argue it’s to keep weed out of schools, while others say it should be treated similarly to alcohol.

According to a new study, Americans might be a bit overzealous in their restricting when it comes to who can access the drug.

The minimum legal age for smoking weed should be around 19 years old, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal BMC Public Health. At that age, negative impacts on long-term health, educational attainment, mental health, and physical health are minimized, the study suggests.

The legal age for marijuana use in Canada, where these researchers are based, varies depending on the province where a person lives.

In most Canadian provinces the legal age for cannabis purchasing is 19 — except Alberta where it is 18. Quebec, however, raised that age to 21 in January 2020. The situation in Quebec is more indicative of the United States cannabis landscape.

This study suggests that it is possible to lower that age, but not by too much explains, explains Hai Nguyen, a health economist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, to Inverse.

Smoking weed before age 19, he says, is linked to “significantly worse outcomes.” But we may not need to wait until age 21 to head mental and physical health consequences off entirely.

“Several later life outcomes from starting cannabis use at age 19 are not different than starting at or after age 21,” Nguyen explains.

Striking a balance – Setting the age threshold is about striking a careful balance between discouraging black market activities and minimizing health risks.

From the scientific perspective, pushing the age limit back to 21 may help protect the brain. For instance, a 2018 study of 3,826 teens found that when teenagers increased their cannabis use over the course of a year, their working memory skills declined in tandem.

A 2019 study suggests that cannabis upsets the natural thinning of grey matter in the teen brain, which could lead to cognitive issues. The CDC sums it up succinctly, stating that marijuana can have “permanent effects on the developing brain when use begins in adolescence.”

Marijuana isn’t uniquely damaging to teen brains (alcohol can do a number on them as well). But setting a legal age for marijuana is especially tricky because marijuana has an especially large underground market, says Nguyen.

Take certain THC vape brands like “Dank Vapes,” which were directly marketed to teens, and sometimes filled with a thickener called Vitamin E acetate. This is thought to have caused a serious and sometimes deadly lung condition.

Meanwhile, illicit marijuana use in high school seniors has remained steady since 1997, suggesting that teens are using it anyway. A legal age that is too high, pushes teens directly into the black market’s hands, the study explains.

Finding the ideal age – This study suggests that we can use evidence to try to strike a balance between the risk of long term brain issues, and pushing teens towards sketchy purchasing options

Nguyen and his colleagues analyzed survey data from about 20,000 people between ages 21 and 65, taking into certain markers of how their lives turned out in domains like general health, mental health, and educational attainment.

They found that, if you consider each long-term outcome like education or mental health in isolation, you actually get different ideal legal cannabis ages. Respondents reported better health if they started smoking weed after age 18. But they reported better mental health if they started after age 19 — compared to if they started a year earlier.

Finally, people who started smoking after age 21 tended to have more years of education than those who started earlier, a trend the scientists suggest that smoking earlier could be linked to dropout rates (but they can’t prove that in this paper).

The scientists settled on 19 because there were no significant differences in health outcomes between those who started smoking marijuana at 19 and those who started at 21. Their educational attainment differences were significant, but when weighed against the rest of the measures, 19 still appeared to be the best compromise.

Importantly, this study can’t prove causality, and it doesn’t change the fact that marijuana may still have neurobiological effects on the brain of a 19-year-old.

The years between 18 and 21 are still crucial for brain development — the brain doesn’t finish developing until about age 25. Because of that, the difference between 19 and 21 may be insignificant when it comes to life outcomes, but it may not be when it comes to cognitive skills. This study was not designed to asses those skills.

That said, the work does provide a framework that scientists can use to asses whether or not a certain minimum legal age is achieving what it is meant to do – reduce risk in the long term.

As long as the legal market is carefully kept regulated, says Nguyen, the Canadian provinces who set the marijuana purchasing age at 19 could be on to something.

Background: Choice of minimum legal age (MLA) for cannabis use is a critical and contentious issue in legalization of non-medical cannabis. In Canada where non-medical cannabis was recently legalized in October 2018, the federal government recommended age 18, the medical community argued for 21 or even 25, while public consultations led most Canadian provinces to adopt age 19. However, no research has compared later life outcomes of first using cannabis at these different ages to assess their merits as MLAs.

Methods: We used doubly robust regression techniques and data from nationally representative Canadian surveys to compare educational attainment, cigarette smoking, self-reported general and mental health associated with different ages of first cannabis use.

Results: We found different MLAs for different outcomes: 21 for educational attainment, 19 for cigarette smoking and mental health and 18 for general health. Assuming equal weight for these individual outcomes, the ‘overall’ MLA for cannabis use was estimated to be 19 years. Our results were robust to various robustness checks.

Conclusion: Our study indicated that there is merit in setting 19 years as MLA for non-medical cannabis.

By analyzing survey data, scientists believe they’ve found the ideal legal marijuana age. This age minimizes black market use while balancing teen health issues. ]]>