How to Prevent Youth Marijuana Use Before It Becomes a Worldwide Epidemic


I don’t usually make predictions, but here is one I’m 100% confident will occur.  Youth and young adult marijuana use will continue to grow into a national and international health and social problem with the legalization of recreational cannabis in developed countries like the US and Canada.   

Here are some facts that informed my prediction.   

Fact #1: The latest Monitoring the Future national drug survey of American youth showed a decrease in perceived harm of marijuana use (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/high-school-youth-trends).  Decreases in perceived harm of using a drug have historically been followed by increases in the consumption of that drug.   

Fact #2: Canadian youth are already the top users of marijuana in the developed world (http://www.ccsa.ca/Eng/topics/Marijuana/Marijuana-and-Youth/Pages/default.aspx), with country-wide legalization of recreational marijuana planned for 2017.  In the US, there are already reports of increased marijuana use among youth in Colorado where state legalization of recreational pot first occurred (http://wishtv.com/2016/01/13/study-shows-increased-youth-marijuana-use-in-colorado/). 

Fact #3: Health officials in the US and Canada are warning the public about the negative health and social effects of marijuana use for young people. These include harm to the developing brains of youth with negative effects on their memory, thinking and attention, increased cases of psychosis, depression, and anxiety, as well as respiratory conditions, school failure, problems with police, impaired driving, and addiction.  These risks, of course, increase dramatically with regular or chronic use of marijuana. 

Fact #4: Marijuana use frequently precedes other illicit drug use among youth.  Use of marijuana does not ensure the use of other illicit drugs by youth, but it is typically a necessary step toward using other harmful substances.


Act Immediately, But with Caution 

Given these sobering facts, health and education organizations and parents should begin to ramp up their local, state and national marijuana use prevention efforts immediately.  We should not wait until the problem of youth marijuana use has escalated into a worldwide epidemic that will be significantly more difficult and costly to slow and reverse.   

Communicating the harmful effects of marijuana to young people is one important step, but is not by itself an effective prevention strategy.   

In fact, if we make the same mistakes of the past and exaggerate the harm caused by casual marijuana use, we risk the very real possibility of not only reducing the believability and effectiveness of our prevention efforts, but also producing boomerang effects resulting in increased marijuana experimentation and use. 

What Should We Do? 

Communicating the negative effects of marijuana consumption must be balanced with positive, aspirational messages and appealing images to enhance the reception and efficacy of prevention, education and media communication to prevent and reduce marijuana use among youth and young adults. 

You can read more about the need and strategies for increasing positive messages and images in substance abuse prevention and treatment communication in our recent slide deck review of images used in alcohol advertising, prevention and treatment: http://preventionpluswellness.com/2016/09/images-in-alcohol-advertising-prevention-treatment-post-script/ 

By the same token, youth services providers and parents need to be careful not to communicate to youth that marijuana use is more prevalent than it actually is.  Inadvertently exaggerating the number or percentage of youth using pot can support inaccurate social norm beliefs that “most kids are using marijuana,” which provides youth with an excuse to experiment and can drive increases in drug use.


Instead, parents and others working with young people need to emphasize that the great majority of youth do not regularly use marijuana.  However, an even more effective social norm strategy would be to communicate appealing images of youth engaged in health and fitness promoting activities, while avoiding marijuana use, to ensure attainment of desirable future images of themselves.   

This later approach has been shown to effectively prevent youth marijuana and other substance use, while also increasing their healthy habits in programs that have carefully integrated substance use prevention with wellness.   

Evidence-based Integrated Prevention and Wellness Programs 

There are two evidence-based programs that have successfully integrated marijuana use prevention with wellness promotion.  These include the SPORT Prevention Plus Wellness (PPW) program for youth (http://preventionpluswellness.com/sport/), and the InShape Prevention Plus Wellness (PPW) program for college-aged young adults (http://preventionpluswellness.com/inshape/). 

Both of these programs were selected into the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP), and their published research findings indicate they are effective in preventing substance use including marijuana and alcohol use, while at the same time increasing health-enhancing habits.   

Specifically, SPORT PPW and InShape PPW present peer and future models of young people participating in sports and physical activities, eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, and controlling stress.  These appealing wellness-based images and messages are integrated with substance use avoidance messages to provide a uniquely holistic and positive youth development strategy for young people. 


Because SPORT and InShape Prevention Plus Wellness programs are based on a screening and brief intervention model, they are just a single-session in length.  As such, they are practical for use in even the busiest settings, including schools and colleges, health care organization, faith-based settings, sports and recreation leagues, homes, etc.   

SPORT and InShape Prevention Plus Wellness programs include scripts for implementing them as individual or group interventions, and include goal setting to increase self-regulation skills to set and monitor multiple health behavior improvements.  In addition, messages and images found in these programs can be adopted for use in media campaigns aimed at correcting inaccurate social norm beliefs that most young people are inactive, unhealthy, and regularly use marijuana.     


I believe the future is clear and unsettling.  The number of youth and young adults using marijuana regularly will grow into a national and international health and social problem for developing countries like the US and Canada.  

Health and education specialists and parents should immediately begin to provide evidence-based prevention programs and education in communities and homes to prevent a likely steep increase in future marijuana use and problems among our young people before it becomes too difficult and costly to reverse.   

A good place to start is by implementing programs that have already been recognized to address marijuana use (e.g., http://www.samhsa.gov/capt/tools-learning-resources/prevention-programs-address-youth-marijuana-use).   

An even better strategy, however, is to use evidence-based programs that integrate marijuana prevention with the promotion of health, fitness and positive identity of youth and young adults.     

Please comment and share this blog with your friends and colleagues. 

Thank you!  

2 Responses to How to Prevent Youth Marijuana Use Before It Becomes a Worldwide Epidemic

  1. Marijuana, regardless of what proponents of legalization want people to believe, is an addictive drug. In fact, the receptor site in the human brain for THC is relatively large, as compared to specific binding sites for other addictive drugs. No addiction to a substance should be ignored or shrugged off as “harmless.” Medical marijuana is one thing, while marijuana containing enough THC to make the user “high” is quite another.
    The effects of long term use of marijuana will not go away because misguided law-makers decided it should be legalized. With increased addiction to marijuana, short term memory impairment will become more common among users. Student progress and academic excellence will suffer. Executive functions of the brain will be impaired. Social encounters will become a product of the drug’s effects on the persons who use.
    Once again, our lawmakers have sold out the people of their states to gain money. The love of money is STILL the root of all evil.

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