Marijuana Use by Youth

When is it a problem?

Barbara Moffat, MSN, RN  and Joy L. Johnson, PhD, RN

Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp.14-15

Marijuana use by youth is far from a new phenomenon. Many adults likely recall their own experiences with marijuana as teenagers; some may still use marijuana today. Because of their experiences, adults may have a tendency to brush aside the issue, or to accept it as a rite of passage.

How is marijuana use different for youth today?

More youth in British Columbia are now using marijuana than two decades ago. Based on the Canadian Community Health Survey, marijuana use by Canadians ages 15 years and older almost doubled between 1989 and 2002.1 The highest rate of marijuana use in the country is in BC, with use most prevalent among youth. Moreover, youth are starting to use marijuana at a younger age.2 Our recent research on tobacco use among teens in BC suggests that young people in BC are now more likely to be recent users of marijuana than recent users of tobacco.3 Higher rates of frequent use have been noted among boys than among girls.4

British Columbia holds a reputation for having high quality “BC Bud” that is inexpensive and readily available at school, according to many youth. Some marijuana grown in this province contains record levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).5

Although most teens in BC report they are recreational marijuana smokers, some say they use marijuana frequently. Our survey of BC youth shows there is a subpopulation of teens using marijuana at least five times a day.3 Youth refer to this pattern as “wake and bake,” and they apply the terms “stoner,” “chronic” and “lifer” to themselves and others who use marijuana often. There is now strong evidence that a subset of marijuana users develop dependency.6

What do teens say about frequent use of marijuana?

The TRACE (Teens Report on Adolescent Cannabis Experiences) project is a research study in which teens are being asked to reflect on their experiences with frequent marijuana use. The insights are revealing. They tell us they use marijuana because:

“It gets me going”: For some teens, marijuana use is a strategy to help them function with day-to-day activities. These teens report smoking pot as soon as they wake up in the morning so they can get out of bed and get to school. As a result, some link their use of marijuana use with “staying in school.”

“It keeps me cool”: Many teens report they use pot to relieve stress and to help cope with life’s frustrations, such as challenges at school and difficulties at home. These teens say that using marijuana allows them to relax and calm down.

“It makes me feel better”: Marijuana use is sometimes credited as a way to improve mood and forget “bad things.” Some teens living with depression believe that marijuana use is preferred to prescription medication, and they suggest that nothing else has worked. These youth also note they can control the amount they use, and know when they have had “enough.”

“It helps me focus”: Some teens link their marijuana use to improved concentration with certain school activities, such as task-oriented subjects such as math. They report that using marijuana helps them “function” their best and complete their school work. In the case of teens living with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, there is some belief that marijuana is more effective than medications like Ritalin.

“It lets me fall asleep”: Marijuana use is a tool that some teens use to fall asleep. Some teens describe their “busy minds” at night and believe that marijuana allows them to close their eyes and “stop thinking” at the end of the day. According to some, marijuana is better than taking sleeping pills.

“It lets me be me”: A number of teens attribute their frequent marijuana use with being able to get in touch with their feelings. Thus, they claim that marijuana allows them to be more open and intimate in their discussions with friends. Some youth equate using marijuana withbeing a “nicer” person.        

As noted, teens use marijuana to manage the difficulties in their lives. Often, youth smoke marijuana because they feel there are no other options. However, frequent use can affect teenagers’ school performance and their relationships with family members.7 Earlier and greater involvement with marijuana has also been associated with increased risk of poor mental health.8 Frequent use is a concern for some youth; they acknowledge the difficulties they have cutting back or quitting. Frequent use may well be a sign of other distress in their lives.

Connecting with teens who use marijuana often

To begin, we need to open a dialogue with teens about marijuana use. It is vital that we continue to learn from youth about their experiences with, and reasons for using, marijuana. Parents, educators, counsellors and health care providers need to talk to teens about the role marijuana is playing in their lives. This conversation must be informed by accurate information and educational materials. It is time to create opportunities to expand this dialogue about marijuana use among, and with, youth today.

About the authors

Barbara is Project Director of TRACE (Teens Report on Adolescent Cannabis Experiences), a project of the Nursing and Health Behaviour Research Unit in the School of Nursing at the University of BC.

Joy is BC Site Director of the Centre for Addictions Research. She is also Professor and Associate Director of Graduate Programs and Research in the School of Nursing at the University of BC

  1. Tjepkema, M. (2004). Use of cannabis and other illicit drugs. Health Reports, 15(4), 43-47.

  2. Dennis, M., Babor, T.F., Roebuck, M.C. et al. (2002). Changing the focus: The case for recognizing and treating cannabis use disorders. Addiction, 97(Suppl. 1), 4-15.

  3. Tu, A.W., Ratner, P.A., & Johnson, J.L. (2006). Gender differences in the correlates of adolescents’ cannabis use.  Manuscript submitted for publication.

  4. McCreary Centre Society. (2004). Healthy youth development: Highlights from the 2003 Adolescent Health Survey III. Vancouver, BC: author.

  5. Mulgrew, I. (2005). Bud Inc.: Inside Canada’s marijuana industry. Toronto, ON: Random House.

  6. Coffey, C., Carlin, J.B., Lynskey, M. et al. (2003). Adolescent precursors of cannabis dependence: Findings from the Victorian Adolescent Health Cohort Study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182(4), 330-336.

  7. Butters, J. (2002). Family stressors and adolescent cannabis use: A pathway to problem use. Journal of Adolescence, 25(6), 645-654.

  8. Fergusson, D.M., Horwood, L.J. & Swain-Campbell, N. (2002). Cannabis use and psychosocial adjustment in adolescence and young adulthood. Addiction, 97(9), 1123-1135.