It's a big world out there, and it can be scary as a parent to think about all the potential hazards that await one's children. (Anya Semenoff, Denver Post file)

Parenting: Is pot biggest teen health hazard? Try booze, sex, cigs

Of all the big bad things my son could encounter in this world, marijuana isn't what I'm most troubled about.

In my last Pot and Parenting column, I wrote about hoping my son would wait until he was of legal age to smoke marijuana. There was some feedback about how parents should be more worried about sex, booze and cigarettes. And I can’t really argue against that. In fact — unprotected sex, consuming alcohol underage and smoking cigarettes are three things I’m way more concerned with my son doing than trying weed.

Unprotected sex is a health risk and can create a baby. Shall I elaborate? A baby means a lifelong responsibility. A teenager is not ready to take on such a responsibility – one that cries all hours of the night, needs constant attention and in some cases, literally sucks the life out of you (I’m talking breastfeeding here people). Some well prepared and financially stable adults can’t even handle that kind of pressure. Experimenting with unprotected sex can also mean STDs, including the worst case: HIV. It’s pretty simple: unprotected sex can come with many more consequences than kids, teens and many adults, tend to think through. I believe we can all agree on that.

When it comes time, I would definitely rather have the awkward talk with my son about using protection and be the embarrassing mom who gives him a condom. And in comparison I’d rather him come to me and tell me he tried a hit of weed one night  rather than being the youngest grandma on my block, right?

Don’t even get me started on underage drinking. Last time I mentioned a Centers of Disease Control study that stated 11% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. is done by people age 12-20. While entirely startling, it’s also probably lower than the actual number.

I definitely drank alcohol between those ages and can’t really think of one person I know who didn’t. I did not grow up on the wrong side of the tracks either. I went to a great high school (the founder of TOMS shoes went there too), did extracurricular activities (which often included singing at nursing homes) and never had one cavity (booyah!).

But alcoholism was in the family, coupled with it being at every friend’s house or party — or house party. People talk about kids bringing vaporizer pens to school … well, I can remember a girl sneaking vodka in a 7 Up bottle into school — in junior high. Yeah. And making decisions on how much to drink? What kid who’s sneaking alcohol anywhere is making great decisions when consuming said alcohol?

As an adult I have definitely drank to excess, which was a behavior I cultivated as a minor. I can’t really let myself consider how many times I legitimately had alcohol poisoning. And I didn’t know that then.  I didn’t know that 88,000 people die on average each year due to overuse of alcohol, according to the CDC. About 5,000 of those people are under the age of 21, reports the National Institutes of Health. Dying of cannabis overdose is an effect that even the federal government says has never been reported.  What I’m trying to say is, if given the choice, 88,000 times over I’d say that I’d rather my son experiment with marijuana instead of alcohol.


Related: A hope that my son waits until adulthood to choose marijuana


And then, there are ciggy butts. Yes, those little nicotine sticks that are sold to anyone over 18 (or under with a good fake ID) are a leading cause of cancer. I smoked LOTS of cigarettes (before I quit going on four years ago). I wish I could time travel and have a chit-chat with my younger self.

“This is going to damage your lungs forever,” I would tell the girl who couldn’t see past next week.

“It’ll make your skin sag and wrinkle earlier and more than it should,” I would warn the girl who hopes to stay eternally young.

Not to mention that it’s incredibly addictive, physiologically as well as psychologically; and the tobacco industry is manipulative and driven by profits and … do I really need to discredit any merits here? I am pretty sure the dangers of cigarettes are widely accepted.

But debates on marijuana’s addictive capacities are still raging.  Some say it’s addictive and affects all aspects of their lives, while others say that it’s “just a plant” and is a cure-all. An article for Psychology Today makes a pretty convincing assertion.  In short, while marijuana users have few (if any) physiological withdrawl symptoms while halting their use, the potential for psychological dependence appears to be the real issue.

So would I rather have my son smoking an indisputably highly addictive substance by an industry that targets him and makes him smell like a pool hall; or would I rather have him raid the pantry because he has the munchies?

Don’t get it twisted (pun intended). I’m not saying that I’m OK with my future teen smoking marijuana. I fully recognize marijuana is dangerous to a growing human body. While the study of marijuana on humans has been limited due to its Schedule I status, it has to be said that like alcohol, sex or nicotine (or caffeine, or sugar, or watching TV or playing football) it can affect the body and its functions.


Archives: Read more Pot & Parenting columns


Some sources say a person is more likely to develop schizophrenia if they are using cannabis. This study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information has been used to highlight that fact. So are you at an increased risk of developing schizophrenia? According to the conclusions listed in the abstract, it appears as though one is just at risk of developing the disease 2.7 years earlier (which means schizophrenia was eventual, but sped up and not necessarily the product of marijuana smoking). If anyone has more enlightening information regarding increased mental illness development due to marijuana smoking, please share it with me.  The medical community is still learning about these effects, as am I.

Some of the more convincing evidence I have seen regarding marijuana’s effect on the brain is this study out of Duke University. Scientists performed IQ tests on children at or before age 13 (before any cannabis use) and then again at age 38 (after some had tried or become users of cannabis).  They recorded that the IQ of non-users went up (slightly) and agreed that the persistent underage use of marijuana led to a decrease in IQ points over a 20-plus year time span.

With that said, if we look just a little closer we can examine figure 3 of the study. This does present evidence that indicates weekly adolescent use of marijuana causes a loss of IQ over a period of time; it also indicates something else. Figure 3 shows us that infrequent adult use of marijuana, in participants who did not use marijuana regularly before age 18, actually increased IQ scores. I’m not even kidding. Take a look. It’s also worth noting that the adults who were frequent cannabis users in this study (whether they started as children or adults) had lower starting IQ scores than those who were infrequent users. The study makes neither heads nor tails of that.


Starting the conversation: How to talk with teens about cannabis


Meanwhile, a different analysis of the Duke University data takes a step to the side saying that while marijuana may play a part in the IQ loss of participants, socioeconomic status is a key piece of correlating data that was being ignored. I’m going to take it even one step further and say there are a wealth of factors (including nutrition, exposure to violence, experiencing trauma, etc.) that need to be accounted for and excluded to assure that only cannabis use is causing this decline in IQ. This study just does not address those things.

With the jury still out on many of marijuana’s true and long-lasting effects, what makes pot the lesser evil?

Having once been a wild child, one who really took advantage of her freedom and definitely pushed the boundaries of safety a time or two (or three or four), I’ve been there and let me tell you, I have done that. I have been a binge drinker, I have been a half-pack a day smoker and I have … well, you get it.

I know that before I ever smoked weed (0 confirmed deaths, ever) I smoked cigarettes (480,000 deaths per year in the U.S.), drank alcohol (88,000 deaths in the U.S. annually) and even popped a few different prescription pills (22,134 deaths in the U.S. 2010) (sorry, Mom).  So I’m not particularly worried that marijuana is the gateway drug to harder stuff or that the simple consumption of cannabis is going to kill him.

Will I freak out if I discover my son is smoking weed?  Probably so.  But I’m aware enough to realize that of all the big bad things in this big bad world that my son could get mixed up in, marijuana is not the worst of it.