A majority of U.S. states have approved the use of medical marijuana for treating a few specific conditions. As governments become more permissive in allowing the use of medical marijuana, people have begun to wonder what mental health conditions the drug might alleviate. Many people use marijuana recreationally to “calm” their mind, but researchers warn against the long-term risks of prescribing medical marijuana to teenagers.

No parent wants to see their teen suffer from anxiety, and severe anxiety can have a negative impact on a teen’s school performance and their social life. Psychotherapy is generally recommended for treating anxiety in teens, and some young people also may benefit from anxiety medications. Often parents and teens may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information about anxiety medications on the Internet and beyond. As medical marijuana use has been growing in popularity, many wonder whether the drug is a potential alternative way of treating anxiety in teens. But researchers and doctors agree that the risks outweigh any potential benefits when it comes to marijuana and the adolescent brain.

What is medical marijuana?

Medical marijuana has only been approved by the FDA to treat a few medical issues, including nausea from chemotherapy and nerve pain.  However, the FDA has not approved the use of medical marijuana for teenagers or children for any medical condition. These FDA-approved medications contain cannabinoid chemicals in the form of the pill. Cannabinoids are the chemicals found in marijuana, and THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the chemical responsible for affecting the body’s central nervous system. Some medical marijuana medications approved by the FDA contain synthetic THC.

There is also very little research about whether medical marijuana can effectively and safely treat mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression in teens or adults. Researchers know much more about the potential psychiatric risks of marijuana than its benefits. Studies show that some people who use marijuana can become dependent on it. Research has also found that 20% to 30% of people who recreationally use marijuana will experience severe anxiety and panic attacks. It is unclear whether marijuana can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder or whether people with anxiety simply are more likely to use marijuana. Studies have found, however, that people who begin to use marijuana in their early teen years are at increased risk of experiencing psychosis later in life.

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What is CBD?

There is another chemical known as cannabidiol oil (CBD) that is being studied more by researchers, and there is a possibility that it can be used to treat various anxiety disorders. CBD is a type of cannabinoid, but CBD is different than medical marijuana because it does not contain THC and does not produce a “high.” Some states allow the use of CBD, and others do not. It comes in a variety of forms, including capsules, tinctures, or vape form. Scientists don’t totally understand how CBD affects the brain, but it is believed by some to have a positive effect on serotonin levels. CBD has been shown to reduce stress in various animal studies, and the scant human research has shown both positive and inconclusive effects. More human research is needed to determine how CBD could be useful in treating social anxiety, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders.

How could medical marijuana affect the teen brain?

Teen marijuana use is at its highest point in decades, with teens now more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco. Teens frequently subscribe to myths about marijuana use, believing that the drug won’t cause long-term damage or that it won’t affect their thinking. But the use of marijuana among teens can cause school problems, memory difficulty, accidents, aggression, and additional risky behaviors. Long-term use can cause breathing problems, decrease intelligence, increase the risk of additional mental health problems, and decrease the effectiveness of mental health medication.

The brain is developing until young people reach their mid-20s, so it’s important to consider how marijuana can affect the brain and the future or your teenager. One research study found that people who persistently used marijuana since their teenage years experienced a decline in neurological functioning and IQ. Marijuana use can affect the parts of the developing brain that control emotion, cognition, and responses to stress. Because THC potency in marijuana has increased in recent years, the risk of cognitive damage has risen as well.

Most evidence that medical marijuana can be used to treat teenagers is anecdotal in nature. Because no large-scale research has established that using medical marijuana to treat psychiatric conditions in children or teens is effective or safe, researchers still agree that the risks far outweigh any potential benefits.

What medications have been approved to treat anxiety in teenagers?

There are medications other than medical marijuana that have been approved by the FDA to treat anxiety-related disorders. When teens are prescribed medication to treat their anxiety, doctors typically begin by prescribing antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These medications are not habit-forming and have proven beneficial in treating various anxiety disorders among teens. SSRIs and SNRIs carry warnings that they may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts, particularly among young people. Although the risk is low, communicate with your teen about side effects so that you will know if they are experiencing any suicidal thoughts. Sometimes benzodiazepines are prescribed to be taken as needed, but these medications can be habit-forming, so it’s important to talk to your child and their doctor about the risks and benefits.

How can I talk to my teen about marijuana and anxiety?

Permissive attitudes toward marijuana in many states may lead teens to believe that it is safe to use marijuana to “calm down.” If your teen has anxiety, it’s important to them to talk about how using marijuana can cause short-term and long-term problems. Share your concerns about their growing brain, and ask them what positive ideas they have about how they can manage their anxiety. You and your teen can reach out to their school counselor or their doctor for information about therapy and other treatment options.

It’s important to remember that just because medical marijuana is legal in many states does not mean that it is safe for your child’s growing mind or that it is effective in treating anxiety. Much research has yet to been done about the benefits and risks of medical marijuana in treating anxiety disorders. So don’t hesitate to talk to your child’s doctor about safe, effective options in treating their anxiety that also protect your teen’s mind and future.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained herein should NOT be used as a substitute for the advice of an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other healthcare provider.  This article mentions drugs that were FDA-approved and available at the time of publication and may not include all possible drug interactions or all FDA warnings or alerts. The author of this page explicitly does not endorse this drug or any specific treatment method. If you have health questions or concerns about interactions, please check with your physician or go to the FDA [link] site for a comprehensive list of warnings.

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Last Updated: Feb 28, 2019