Mainstream Media Rehashes Old Myths About Teens, Weed, and Brain Damage
To start off the week, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published scare pieces about teen cannabis use within one hour of each other.
Published on June 17, 2019

2020 is just around the corner, but if you’re following major media outlets, you’d think we were turning back to 1980.

On Sunday morning, two of America’s most popular newspapers — the Washington Post and the New York Times — both published fear-mongering stories regarding teens getting brain damage from smoking weed.

The Washington Post story began with a father in Colorado who claimed that extracts turned his son into a dope fiend; the teen was later admitted to a drug rehab center — for cannabis use.

“Underage kids have unbelievable access to nuclear-strength weed,” Andrew Brandt, the concerned father, told the Washington Post. “It seems like everyone is looking the other way, and meanwhile kids are ending up in hospitals.”

How many kids are ending up in hospitals because of weed, though? The Washington Post cited just one medical study regarding teen cannabis use and hospitalization. The 2018 study looked only at Colorado Children’s Hospital ERs, which saw a surge of marijuana-related visits over a decade: from 161 in 2005 to 777 in 2015, the year after Colorado started selling legal weed.

Although the Children’s Hospital data shows a real trend, the reasons for that trend aren’t entirely clear. The media, true to sensationalist form, spun the story as smoking-gun proof that more kids were smoking ‘nuclear-strength’ weed since legalization. But there are other explanations that haven’t yet been ruled out.

For instance, it’s possible that Colorado’s population explosion, which started in the mid-2000s, contributed to the uptick in kids visiting the ER. From 2005 to 2015, the state’s population growth rate jumped from 11 percent a year to nearly 20 percent. From 2010 to 2015, the population grew by over 400,000 people, making it the second-fastest growing US state in 2015.

But can population growth alone account for the spike in teen ER visits? Maybe, maybe not. It’s also possible that teens — and adults — feel more comfortable telling doctors about their cannabis use now that it’s legal, hence more teens reporting that, yeah, they’re in the hospital because they dabbed too hard, and not because they think they’re coming down with the ‘stomach flu,’ or any number of other excuses kids use to conceal their drug use.

To the Washington Post’s credit, it did cite one study that showed Colorado teens weren’t smoking more weed after legalization compared to teens in other states (in fact, the study showed slightly fewer teens in Colorado were blazing, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant). Two other studies released this week concluded that dispensaries operating near high schools doesn’t lead to increased teen use, but greater proximity to pot shops does increase use among young adults who are old enough to legally blaze (shocker). 

The two doctors who penned the New York Times opinion piece, presumably, didn’t have access to the dispensary studies. They made many of the same arguments as the Washington Post, basing much of their fears on weeded teens’ low IQ scores (an incredibly unreliable way to assess brain damage, as discussed here).

And The Gray Lady took the fear-mongering one step further.

“While society may consider a 21-year-old to be an adult, the brain is still developing at that age,” the doctors wrote in the New York Times. “States that legalize marijuana should set a minimum age of no younger than 25” [emphasis mine].

How sound is that brain development argument, though?

The argument hinges on fringe psychology that erroneously claims that the human brain stops developing at 25. It’s true that the brain becomes fully developed around that age, but it’s not true that the brain stops developing then. There’s also zero evidence that cannabis use prior to 25 causes structural changes in the brain compared to non-consumers.

The latest studies on brain development show that the human brain keeps growing, regenerating, and forming new connections until we die. In 2018, researchers at Columbia University found that seniors’ brains contained the same number of new brain cells as teenagers’, further upending the long-held belief that the brain becomes static after 25 years.

Even more intriguing: the Columbia scientists discovered that new brain cells were likely coming from the hippocampus, the same brain region that cannabis could repair and regenerate (admittedly, the verdict is still out on that one).

So if the human brain is actually plastic, reforming and reshaping itself from birth until death, what age should we allow adults to consume weed? By the fear mongers' logic, that age should be: never.

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Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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