Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

House of Charity generously supports MinnPost’s Mental Health & Addiction coverage; learn why

‘It’s just pot’: Does legalization of medical marijuana change teens’ attitudes about it?

REUTERS/Steve Dipaola
Marijuana-based products are displayed at the Oregon's Finest medical marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon.

Does the legalization of medical marijuana give young Minnesotans the impression that the drug is harmless — or at least as safe or even safer than other substances like alcohol or cigarettes?

Though recent studies have shown that legalization for medical purposes has not led to an increase in adolescent use of marijuana in the United States, does decriminalization of the drug change young people’s attitudes about its safety?

Carol Falkowski, CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues, a Minnesota-based organization that offers education and training on drug abuse issues, said that if a drug is declared legal for medical use by lawmakers, it may inadvertently send the message that its recreational use is also safe for young people.

Teens may be particularly vulnerable to these messages, Falkowski said: Research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse [PDF] found that when a teen’s sense of a substance’s perceived harm goes down, his/her rate of use of that substance goes up.

In 1993, for instance, 35.6 percent of 12th graders polled believed there was a “great risk” in smoking marijuana occasionally. That same year, 26 percent of teens polled reported using marijuana. In 2014, those numbers had changed dramatically: 19.5 percent of 12th graders polled saw great risk in occasionally smoking marijuana, while 36.4 percent had used the drug.

Carol Falkowski
Carol Falkowski

“I think it’s pretty easy to assume that the fact that 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana and four states and many cities have legalized recreational marijuana contributes to the increased perception among teens that marijuana use is not harmful to them,” Falkowski, said. “More teenagers now smoke marijuana than cigarettes. It’s great that fewer kids smoke cigarettes, but we should all be concerned that more kids are smoking marijuana. The earlier the onset of use, the more likely the development of addiction.”  

This week, I spoke with Falkowski and three other prominent addiction and recovery experts. I asked them if they thought that legalization changes teens’ attitudes about marijuana. Here’s what they said:

Michael Durchslag, director, P.E.A.S.E. academy:

As director of P.E.A.S.E. Academy, Minneapolis’ quarter-century-old recovery high school, Durchslag works with young people who have plenty of experience with drugs and alcohol and are actively seeking sobriety.

He said that “99 percent” of his students have smoked marijuana in the past, and so they may not be a good barometer of the shifting attitudes in the general teen population. “The adolescents I come across on a daily basis,” Durchsla said, “are definitely a subset of the culture.”

That said, he believes that P.E.A.S.E. students do reflect overarching societal perceptions about drug use.

“The attitude that I get from kids here,” Durchslag said, “and this has been for a long time, is, ‘It’s just pot. It’s not bad. It’s actually natural. It’s not even a drug. It’s just pot.’ I think that’s the prevailing attitude among teens everywhere — and even the teens’ parents.”  

P.E.A.S.E. Academy Director Michael Durchslag
Courtesy of P.E.A.S.E. Academy
Michael Durchslag

Durchslag said that attitudes like that concern him. “Pot is stronger than it’s ever been,” he said. “It keeps getting stronger. The pot from the ’90s is not the pot from 2015. The pot from 2000 is not the pot from 2015. It just keeps getting stronger.”

Marijuana can be addictive, Durchslag said, and he’s concerned about the long-term effects that heavy use of the drug can have on the developing adolescent mind.

“I work with a population that has learned that whether it’s legal or not, they can’t use marijuana successfully,” Durchslag said. “For 46 percent of my students, the primary drug that they’ve sought treatment for is marijuana. People forget that marijuana can be addictive. It actually changes the physical chemistry within your brain.” 

Durchslag believes that it is “just a matter of time before marijuana is decriminalized nationwide. I think this ball is already rolling. I don’t think it is going to stop.” Because of that reality, he said he hopes that people will not lose sight of the fact that for some individuals at least, use of any drug — including marijuana — will never be a good idea. 

“I’ve seen an increase in the number of kids using opiates and heroin,” Durchslag said. There is a huge amount of public concern and activism around this shift, he added, but “attitudes toward marijuana haven’t changed in the 20 years I’ve been here. It’s always been, ‘It’s not a big deal,’ but for a lot of kids, it is.”

Joseph Lee, M.D., medical director for youth continuum, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation:

In the last 20 years, young Americans’ view of marijuana and its use have changed significantly, Lee said.

“The attitudes about marijuana have become more lax among youth,” he said. “That’s not up for debate.” And while he believes that “the sky hasn’t fallen in states that have recreational marijuana,” Lee says that an increased sense of the relative safety of marijuana use will eventually bring with it an increase in use in young people.

“When kids find substances to be more harmful they use less,” Lee said. “Cigarettes can be a good objective barometer for that. When kids think things are more risky, like they did with cigarettes, they tend to use less. When they perceive a substance to be safe, they use more.” 

Though not every young person who smokes marijuana will become addicted or suffer negative effects from the drug, Lee is most concerned about those who start using the substance at a young age. Earlier onset of drug use is a greater indicator of future addiction, he added.

Joseph Lee, M.D.
Joseph Lee, M.D.

“It’s not like every kid who uses substances is going to have terrible outcomes,” Lee said. “The kids who use at an earlier age are sub-selected for the behavior and are at a higher risk for later issues. When young people start to use at an early age, they are showing their risk for a negative life outcome. A 14-year-old smoking cigarettes is self-electing for this behavior.”

As marijuana becomes decriminalized in more parts of the United States, Lee thinks it will be important to develop “clear, smart messaging” around the drug and the dangers associated with its use for young people, especially those at high risk for addiction.

“Adult use has gone up in the country,” he said. “There will be some trickle down of attitudes from adults to kids. We know that parental attitudes about various substances do influence behavior in kids.”

That trickle-down message needs to be delivered in an honest, clear way, Lee said. If marijuana will one day become legally available nationwide, we need to learn how to communicate about its risks in a way that won’t alienate teens.

“We no longer live in the age where the stork delivers babies,” he said. “You have to have messaging that’s really smart. What we’ve done with tobacco is smart. Cigarette use is going down due to smart messaging around cigarettes an their dangers. There’s hope for high-risk youth around marijuana use, too, but we have to be smart.”

Scott Washburn, assistant director and licensed alcohol and drug counselor StepUP, Augsburg College:

Prior to 2008, when Washburn came to StepUP, Augsburg College’s program for students in addiction recovery, he worked as a prevention specialist at Minnetonka High School. The attitude he saw among teens even then was a growing perception that marijuana use was generally low risk.

The students he sees at StepUP are a different story, Washburn said: “The population I work with now, they are in recovery and they realize that marijuana is highly addictive and its use can be problematic.”

Washburn contends that as long as young people believe that a substance presents a low risk of negative side effects, they are more likely to use it.

“For the past 30 years there’s this dynamic between perception of risk of using a substance and the actual use,” he explained. “There is an inverse coloration.”

Scott Washburn
Scott Washburn

Take cigarettes, for instance. Washburn points to data collected over 24 years from the Monitoring the Future study.

“In the 2014 study, they compared the use of cigarettes and marijuana amongst 12th graders from 1975-2014,” Washburn said. “What’s noteworthy is that in 2010, those two lines crossed. Tobacco use started to decline in 1998 continuing up to 2014. But marijuana use continued to go up and eventually was higher than tobacco use.”

Today, more American teens smoke pot than cigarettes.

“By 2014, the rate of cigarette use among 12th graders was 13.6 percent, whereas 21.2 percent of the same population has used marijuana,” Washburn said. “You can see in our culture there’s been a significant shift in attitude about marijuana use.”

At Augsburg, Washburn teaches a class titled Addiction and Recovery. He encourages his students to look at the issue of drug use and legalization from all sides of the argument.

“I tell my students that just because a drug can harm you doesn’t also mean that it can’t help you,” he said. “I don’t think and of this is a black-and-white thing. There’s good, solid research coming out that there is legitimate medical use for cannabis. Whether that means it should be totally legal for recreation is another discussion altogether.” 

Washburn said that in classroom discussions about medical marijuana, he likes to talk about issues surrounding the use — and abuse — of other well-known drugs.

Vicodin and oxycodone are legal drugs,” he said, “but just because they are prescribed by physicians for valid reasons doesn’t mean that they can’t be harmful and dangerous when used incorrectly. Alcohol is legal if you are over a certain age, but that doesn’t meant it can’t be harmful if it is misused and abused.” 

This thoughtful discussion-based tactic is the most helpful way to talk about drug use with young people, Washburn said. He hopes that’s the direction that conversations about marijuana use will take going into the future.

“My experience over my years of working in the schools was that I found that just having a genuine adult conversation and not being extreme on either end was helpful,” he said. “It gave kids room to grapple with the messages that they hear and make sense of it all. That’s the best way to approach the issue.” 

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 11/04/2015 - 12:38 pm.

    How to legalize

    1. Raise the smoking age to 21, so it is clear that whether it is tobacco, marijuana or alcohol it is harmful for youth to ingest these substances.

    2. Sell legal marijuana only through bars and liquor stores with heavy sin taxes and accurate product labeling in terms of potency, restricting potency levels as we do for alcohol. Present marijuana as the one legal alternative to alcohol.

    3. Institute tighter control of tobacco in terms of disclosure and regulation of ingredients. Our lax attitudes toward tobacco contribute to the level of problems we have with other drugs.

    4. Create severe penalties for unauthorized sellers of these substances, and any one who sells illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin, looking at alternatives other than long prison sentences.

    Those are some examples of what should be done, but sloppy thinking around these issues has and will continue to make them major health and social problems. We need to fix problems, not ignore or magnify them.

  2. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/04/2015 - 01:28 pm.

    In spite of any real problems with the abuse of marijuana, as opposed to abuse of other substances, the resources we pour into enforcing ridiculously draconian laws against it are wasted. We are better off doing needed research, educating everyone, and treating all substance abuse.

    The worst thing about marijuana is that we have prohibitions against it. If you provide accurate information instead of the ridiculous propaganda to which we have been subjected for over a century, even kids can make rational decisions, important ones as the neural development and cognition problems in younger users shows. Luckily, the plasticity of the brain makes it possible to gain much after any sort of damage from substance abuse or trauma, but I doubt such brain ‘damage’ can be completely attributed to marijuana.

    Too many families have been torn apart by our stupid drug laws, giving over generations of all classes willingly to criminals taking full advantage of our stupidity. Profit is the goal in the same marketing of any mood altering substance, legal or not, so when kids lose parental involvement in their lives in this fashion, you cannot tell me it is because of the substance abuse. It is because through our laws we have culled them from not only from their parents, but from our law abiding society. Substances are not the only thing that can affect brain development and cognition; the traumatic experiences and environments of illicit substance abuse are likely far more more damaging to the brain than those substances could ever be.

    The War on Drugs makes both fools or addicts of us all, and cripples society on a global scale. Some cops, prosecutors and judges get it. Check out Law Enforcement Against Prohibitions at

    Legalization and regulation will always be better than prohibition whether pot is not so good or not so bad. Pot was my gateway to cigarettes, and I am glad to be through with both; but if we had had a rational approach to substance abuse when I was a kid, I likely would not even have abused alcohol.

  3. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 11/04/2015 - 02:05 pm.

    This reads

    like the kind of faulty thinking that led to MN’s truly horrible and counter-productive medical marijuana laws. Only in a very narrow swath of affluenza-impaired exurbia could anyone possibly buy into all of this concern by proxy from individuals who make their living by counseling weak-willed youth whose self-indulgence became problematic for their parents.

    If you try a little harder, maybe you can find an “expert” who will use anecdotal data to blame pot for the new numbers on middle-aged white suicides.

    But I’m not giving MinnPost readers enough credit. The author debunks her own concerns in the fifth paragraph where she cites numbers showing teen angst over pot decreases with familiarity. Sounds like the kids polled have more common sense than the “prison is better than common sense” crowd (no, obviously YOUR kids won’t go, but the laws you use to parent your children DO land the poor and minorities in prison).

  4. Submitted by jw heffner on 11/05/2015 - 04:07 am.

    “Reefer Madness” didn’t work, so now the prohibitionists turned obstructionists want to sound more reasonable. We have a group of people sharing their opinions who all make a living in the ‘Rehab Racket’ and it’s supporting bureaucracies and we should take them seriously? The numbers keep telling us the ‘what about the children’ is almost a non-issue. They figured out that using the Big Lie didn’t work so they’ve descended to using could, should, might and even will happen. Check out the statistics from the Free American States and interpret them for yourself. The sky is not falling, the wolves are not at the door and sex crazed Hindoos(sic) and Mexicans are not raping white women on the streets. They had to change the meaning of addiction in order to come up with their 9% of users having dependence on Cannabis. The DEA agent who came up with ‘what about the bunnies'(he said rabbits but bunnies is more cutesy and makes a point) when trying to demonize outdoor Cannabis growing is a good example of the extremes that these War Against Drugs goons will go to further their agenda. If we are to believe this slant than NIDA is an unbiased source of information on Cannabis.
    Our teenagers are going to behave in their normal patterns and a percentage are going to test boundaries and rebel against authority. It’s part of growing up and preparing to leave the nest. If they are going to use prohibited behavior as an expression of this pattern Cannabis is a safer way to do it than alcohol.
    It’s 2015 and the base attitudes about Cannabis are evolving and approval of recreational Cannabis is at 58%. The perceptions of the obstructionists are still stuck in the last century caught somewhere between hippy bashing and “this is your brain on drugs”.
    Over regulation and over taxation equal a continuing black market.
    Stop the lies and fully legalize.

  5. Submitted by Tim Olson on 11/05/2015 - 10:19 am.

    The real reason anyone uses drugs is pleasure. For any number of reasons, their life is presently painful and they seek relief. Whether we agree that their circumstances warrant the sense of distress they feel is immaterial, it is how they feel.

    For most of us, a few beers, etc., on occasion do not lead to craving the sensation to the point that it effects our lives negatively. Sure parts of our lives suck, but not so much so that we need to “check out” frequently to escape the pain.

    So maybe the approach we take, as a society, to reduce addictions, is to actively promote the “Pursuit of Happiness” for everyone, not just ourselves or our group, but all of us.

    Sort of a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach.

  6. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/05/2015 - 10:41 am.

    Fractured Thesis

    Whatever the author’s argument may seem, it’s pretty difficult to follow through her “experts.” Initial reader comments seem to corroborate that confusion.

    We seem to be reading a “stepping stone theory” update…or not. It’s difficult to tell. An honest reader simply is given too little coherence to know for sure.

    Is this posting about Minnesota and our new Medical Cannabis pilot program? The title and lead say “Yes.” The lead photo of an Oregon pot pharmacy seems to say “No.” If helpful to readers, I will gladly furnish a photo of my MinnMed bottle: small and plain white, childproof cap, proper labeling…just like many other bottles in one’s medicine cabinet.

    The author begins in her words, but ends without them. There may be no current conclusion to the topic, but there certainly should be a proper conclusion to the article. Without a coherent thesis, that’s difficult.

Leave a Reply