According to a recent Monitor in Psychology article, titled “Medicine or Menace?” – 10% of those who smoke marijuana meet criteria for dependence, and a recently rising 20.6% of high school seniors reported smoking marijuana in the past month. And while stats are lower than the 37% of seniors in 1978, the potency of marijuana has been rapidly increasing since the 60’s and 70’s. Today’s marijuana reportedly has 30 times as much THC as the marijuana of the 1960’s. Today’s drug is a different drug.

But there seems little question that there are medical benefits. Montana has been progressive in legalizing it for medical purposes. It seems that as stigma is erased for medical use, stigma also fades in the context of social use. For those enjoy getting high, this may seem like a positive thing, but why is there such a draw from teens toward recreational experimentation with this drug and what are the psychological developmental effects?

One explanation has to do with teens’ social context. Teens want to be unique and yet a bigger driving force can be teen’s need to fit in and be accepted. And while most teens won’t acknowledge it, feeling accepted at home is at least as important as feeling accepted by their peers. Statistics show that teens who feel close with their parents are half as likely to abuse substances, than other kids. If teens don’t feel acceptance at home, they may crave it that much more from their peers. And beneath the surface, they may also be that much more afraid that they ultimately won’t be accepted by their peers.

So do teens smoke pot to gain the instant approval of their peers? Not exactly. As adults, why do we get coffee, a beer, or go skiing with somebody? The activity is often arbitrary. Kids and adults often engage in activities so they have some kind of context as an excuse for socializing. And doing something one “shouldn’t do” can be a bonding experience. Smoking pot can create a context that feels ripe for deeper connection. And perhaps more importantly, pot can calm someone (though, plenty have panic attacks from smoking) and pot can eliminate inhibitions.

To start a conversation with someone can be a nerve wracking experience for anyone, especially a teen. If you’ve seen John Cusack’s movie, “Better Off Dead,” picture the scene where Lane meets Beth. Experiencing anxiety is par for the course. Pot can help teens avoid this anxiety, but is this a good thing? Part of advancing through adolescence (and beyond) is learning to tolerate and cope with anxiety as it arises. One can retreat from it (avoid social interactions), filter it (text instead of speaking f2f), hide it (get high), or simply experience it AND engage in the interactions, despite the nervousness. Successful social experiences lead to confidence in social skills and failures lead to confidence in coping skills. Over time, nervousness does not take such a grip; it ebbs and flows and teens learn not to be scared of the experience of being scared.

Published in Montana’s Healthy Living