NEW YORK (MainStreet) Eric Dickens smoked pot for the first time in high school when he was 17 years old. By the time he was 20 years old, he was smoking regularly. Now at 28 years old, the music promoter still uses cannabis.
"Marijuana is a drug, but it's not as bad as alcohol," Dickens told MainStreet. "People have been educated and realize that in comparison to other drugs, it's not as harmful."
Addiction experts beg to differ.
"We are increasingly concerned that regular or daily use of marijuana is robbing many young people of their potential to achieve and excel in school or other aspects of life," said Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "We know from recent research that marijuana use that begins during adolescence can lower IQ and impair other measures of mental function into adulthood."
Experimenting with marijuana is nothing new but the pot today is not the same as during the Woodstock era.
"The potency of marijuana has dramatically increased," said Garth Laster, associate director with Ashcreek Ranch Academy in Toquerville, Utah, which caters to troubled teen boys. "In the 1990s the THC level was around 3%; in our day at least 15%."
Complicating potency is the money that's made from the sale of legal marijuana.
"Many people are unaware that the marijuana industry markets to create chronic users just like the tobacco industry so be mindful of these issues and talk to your kids so they can make educated choices if and when they arrive at legal age of use," said Joel Edwards, executive director with Morningside Recovery, an addiction rehab and mental health treatment center in Newport Beach, California.
Some one in six teens who try marijuana will become addicted to the drug, according to the National Institute of Health but now that recreational use is legal in two states and counting, parents may be challenged in what to say to discourage teen usage.
"Considering that a teen's primary source of information comes from their peers, the internet and social media, parents are fighting an uphill battle in successfully persuading their children of the harmful effects of marijuana use," said Mike Hench, therapist with the WinGate Wilderness Therapy program in Kanab, Utah for at-risk teens and young adults.
Overall, legalization legitimizes the recreational use of marijuana.
"It isn't legalization that is the danger but the changing attitudes people have about marijuana," said Dr. Damon Raskin, medical director with Cliffside Malibu Rehab Center in Malibu. "Because it's legal, people assume that marijuana is safe."
Indeed, NIDA's Monitoring the Future survey found that teens' perception of marijuana's harmfulness is down, which can signal future increases in use. Only 41.7% of eighth graders see occasional use of marijuana as harmful and as teens get older their perception of risk diminishes. Only 20.6% of 12th graders see occasional use as harmful, which is the lowest since 1983.
"If you want to keep your child from becoming a user altogether, informing him or her of the health risks and legal consequences of use is your best bet," Edwards told MainStreet.
Legal pot being a hot topic in the news is one way to broach the subject of recreational use with teens.
"The silver lining here is that parents have a great opportunity to control the conversation about marijuana and other drugs," said Edwards.
Regardless of whether parents support the legalization of marijuana, it's important to inform kids about current marijuana issues. "If comfortable enough, a parent may want to mention that the majority of kids in treatment centers for drugs like opiates and ecstasy got their via the marijuana highway," said John Venza, vice president with adolescent services at Outreach, a drug and alcohol abuse treatment center in New York.
--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet