March 12, 2005


There are times in the office when I think I could hold a "sick parade" that just deals with marijuana.


This is because Canada's latest "not exactly illegal" drug, the softest of the soft drugs, is actually brutally hard on your health, especially if you're a teenager.


From a family doctor's view, pot is everywhere. Its traditional barriers to entry -- high cost and illegality -- evaporate like smoke when teens light up. One of my patients told me about the information night held recently at her son's high school.


It was a general alarm for parents, describing the telltale signs of escalating drug (particularly marijuana) use: absenteeism, inertia, withdrawal from extracurricular activities, all-nighters with friends they don't really know, and the most obvious sign of all, the inevitable decline in grades.


Next to alcohol, pot is the most-used recreational drug. The National Results on Drug Use Among Teens, tabulated by the U.S. National Institutes of Health for more than 25 years, reported in 2000 that both ecstasy and marijuana had an explosion in use that started in the nineties. For marijuana, this resurgence followed a long decline from its previous peak in 1979 (today's parents), which had a 51 per cent reported use among Grade 12 students. But today's kids are starting to smoke pot earlier and earlier. The study surveyed children as young as Grade 7 students. But that was in 2000, and I know anecdotally that some kids start smoking grass when they are 10 or 11.


You might wonder why the cost doesn't keep them away. But when one parent asked me that, then disclosed she gave her son $35 at the start of each week and the same amount every weekend, well, that buys a lot more than Big Macs. For one of my patients, the issue wasn't that her son was using marijuana; he was selling it, paying for his habit by selling dope to his friends.


Defenders of marijuana use will also tell you it isn't addictive.


However you define that word, far too many parents have to "negotiate in inches" to stop their teens from smoking. And since addiction, like alcoholism, isn't measured by the amount you use, but by the harm you cause yourself and others, it's hard not to equate consistently falling grades with consistently rising drug use.


The hardest negotiation with a child on pot always focuses on school grades. They'll blame everything but the weed itself in an effort to keep using it.


From your point of view, your kid's job as a teenager is to get the diploma, move out of the house and move on in life.


Being high a large part of your teenaged years sucks the life out of even wanting to get up in the morning, let alone get any schoolwork done. Down go the grades and, I believe, getting them back up without being clean is virtually impossible.


Many of us remember the relatively benign marijuana of the sixties and seventies: The effects of smoking a joint today last up to eight hours and have another lasting and much nastier effect. They fry your brain. In 2002, Dr. Peter Freid of Ottawa, conducted one of the best longitudinal studies ever done on heavy users (more than five joints per week). He found the decrease in general IQ was five points below pre-use scores in 74 teens whose IQs had been followed from birth.


There were two other important points Dr. Freid made in that study. One was that there was no lasting effect on IQ if they stopped using the drug -- so yes, please work hard to get your child off pot, and the sooner, the better. And ironically, with their five-point decrease in IQ, these teens still had average and better-than-average IQs. In other words, they were bright and capable. They weren't losers who felt they couldn't make it in school, and so hid out behind their drug.


As distressing as all this sounds, there is hope.


One of my patients summoned a neighbourhood gathering of parents whose sons were clearly smoking up together. From that meeting, they found a new understanding of their real concern. They all liked these boys and they found comfort in sharing their common worry. For one mom, getting all her anxiety into the open was crucial and she came away feeling that her boy wasn't so bad after all. She was much more assured about how she would deal with him and clear that her job was to give him, with large doses of love and reassurance, the responsibility for his own actions.


Finding that kind of support eases any sense of isolation. Turning to the police and school authorities would expose the problem. Does a parent turn in their dealing teen and risk sending him to jail? Do they describe to teachers their futile attempts at getting their teen to school and ask for help? Parents are blocked from asking because of some perceived sense of shame.


Assumptions such as "this doesn't happen in nice families" or "her failure at living is my failure at parenting" underscore many a conversation in the safety of my office. By that time, their teen is often in freefall and the way back is onerous.


A parent's strongest weapon is that they care. Care enough not to hide or give up on or lock out or otherwise psychologically beat up on their almost-grown child. Care enough to drag everyone into the mess because if you don't throw a lifeline, it doesn't get grasped.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.