Cannabis May Be Worse Than Alcohol for Teens

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Exactly what does marijuana do to a young person’s brain?

A new study looked at how cannabis, alcohol, and other substances affect the brains of teens. Getty Images

A new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that cannabis may actually have a more negative impact on teens’ cognitive development than alcohol.

The study’s results put up a warning sign to teens that regular use of marijuana, for instance, could have long-lasting effects on their brains.

“The study was originally designed to evaluate the impact of alcohol on adolescent cognitive development,” Patricia Conrod, PhD, lead author and professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, told Healthline. “This was years back, it took a while to get funded and set up. Ten years ago, we understood a lot about alcohol but very little about cannabis. In the interim years, we have come to understand more about cannabis than we did.”

She said that she would have expected to see that alcohol had a negative impact on cognitive development, but it was a surprise to see just how impactful cannabis was on young people’s cognition.

Conrod said her team took a “big data” approach to the study. They looked at 3,826 teens starting from seventh grade from 31 Montreal-area schools over the course of four years. The students who participated sent back annual reports that documented their level of alcohol and marijuana use. The researchers also gave the teens cognitive tests to gauge the teens’ working memory, perceptual reasoning, recall memory, and inhibition.

To make sure they got the most honest responses from the students, these reports were confidential. Parents and teachers, not allowed.

The study authors reported that teens who used cannabis more often than others had cognitive function changes that appeared “to be more pronounced than those observed for alcohol.”

Conrod said the results should be a cautionary tale to teens as they contemplate marijuana use at a young age.

“Our findings suggest young people should do everything they can to delay the onset of their cannabis use, if not avoid it entirely,” she added. “I do not recommend it; clearly there are health risks associated with cannabis.”

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