Hey College Parents, Today’s Weed is Not Your ’80s Pot

“They’re just smoking a little pot, right?”

Listen up, parents, because today’s “WEED” is not your “POT”.

Back in the late 70’s and 80’s, smoking pot usually meant passing a joint or bong around a circle of friends with half-closed eyes and mellow vibes (thanks, Cheech&Chong). The nicknames were endless- pot, dope, grass, marijuana, MJ, Mary Jane, reefers, roaches, etc, and the concentration of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive part) ranged from 2-5%. With these low THC concentrations, there was no recognized withdrawal syndrome and therefore pot was not considered addictive.

Today’s “weed” in the United States- legal or not- routinely has THC concentrations of 15%-30%, and the popular concentrated THC products (dab, oil, shatter, wax, etc.) can reach concentrations well beyond 90%. These products are potent enough to cause 9% of people experimenting with them to become addicted. Adolescent brains are even more susceptible, resulting in a disturbing 16.7% (one in six!) becoming addicted. Withdrawal symptoms can be intense and include powerful cravings for more weed, as well as anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and feelings of unease and dissatisfaction- which mimic many of the reasons many use cannabis in the first place. Ultimately, this creates a vicious cycle of use, transient relief, withdrawal symptoms, craving, using more THC to seek relief…and repeat. Students very often start using weed at night to “calm their brain” and help them fall asleep, but before long they are addicted, and then their withdrawal symptoms actually make their insomnia worse.

Edibles are often the entry point for cannabis, partly because there is no smoking or inhaling involved. Candy gummies, brownies, chocolate bars and “pop tarts” appear childishly innocent, their brightly colored packages and familiarity reassuring to nervous new users. Meanwhile, a single gummy bear typically contains 10mg of THC-  which is FOUR TIMES the 2.5mg “suggested” recreational dose for someone who doesn’t usually consume cannabis. Who on this planet eats one FOURTH of a gummy bear? We may bite ears off a chocolate bunny, sure, but we pop the whole gummy in our mouths. Even worse, edibles take a solid 30-60 minutes for their buzz to kick in, so a very common mistake is eating a second or even third gummy after 15-20 minutes because you “didn’t feel anything from the first one” which then can easily result in cannabis toxicity (nausea, vomiting, paranoia, panic, psychosis, headache, chest pain, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, etc.)

Ask any college psychologist what they think about cannabis, and you’re pretty much guaranteed an eyeroll and a grimace. Short-term effects of cannabis are often ignored or minimized by students- decreased reaction time, decreased motor coordination and balance, and slowed perceptual accuracy. The same smart kids who would NEVER drink and drive might mindlessly hop into a car with a friend who’s been vaping or had edibles. On the academic front, weed slows down your hippocampus for a full 24 hours, stalling the part of your brain that creates long term memories- so weekend weed can hurt weekday studying and test scores. Not surprisingly, multiple studies have shown that college students who regularly use cannabis show impaired judgement, decreased motivation, skip classes more, have lower GPAs, take longer to graduate, and ultimately have lower lifetime earning potential. Even using cannabis once/week causes disruptions in the motivation and emotion centers in your brain.

Perhaps the scariest thing about cannabis today is the significantly increased risk of psychosis. “Psychosis” means experiencing false beliefs (delusions) or seeing/hearing things others do not (hallucinations.) Common examples are extreme paranoia (trying to escape the mafia guy attempting to kill you by jumping in your car and racing at insanely high speeds) or hearing threatening voices urging you to harm yourself or others. These intense hallucinations feel completely and terrifyingly real to the individual experiencing them, and sadly, may be lethal- a far cry from the gentle “purple haze” you might picture. Once this psychosis “switch” in the brain has been turned on, we don’t know when or if it will turn off, meaning that a cannabis-induced psychosis can convert to clinical schizophrenia. The younger your brain (especially teens), the higher the THC concentration, the more frequent your usage, and the more genetic propensity (family history of psychotic disorders) that you have, the more each cannabis use increases your risk of developing a psychotic illness. Buyer beware.

Meanwhile, there are many college students who start using weed recreationally in the weekend party scene, never intending it as a life-long habit but merely considering it part of the  “college experience.”  While five out of six teens won’t get addicted, for the one in six who DOES, quitting weed will be incredibly hard. Remember that cannabis may be legal in your state, but it is not legal on the national level. For internships and jobs, this means most national corporations have zero tolerance for weed showing up on your drug screen. PS. The drinks that say they “clear” cannabis from your urine are inconsistent at best for urine, and do nothing for drug testing from hair samples, which will show cannabis for up to 90 days after your last use.

There is so much more to say about the negative impact “just weed” can have on young adults, from legal issues to “tainted” weed (spiked with LSD acid or other toxic ingredients) to cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. I do recognize my negative bias is partly due to inherent self-selection of what I’ve seen- obviously, bad outcomes come to medical attention, people without problems do not. However, I hope the information here is enough to start a conversation.

Additionally, on a personal level, rarely a week goes by without someone (usually a once-removed friend of a friend or colleague) reaching out to me about their college student son or daughter in crisis. The immediate issue is usually an emotional breakdown (severe depression/anxiety) or physical accident (often car crashes), and many are precipitated by a cannabis-induced psychosis that landed them in the ER. The stories are heartbreakingly similar, frequently starting off with “I knew he/she was occasionally using pot, but I honestly didn’t think it was a big deal.”

BOTTOM LINE: Today’s “weed” is not your 80’s “pot”. Please, please, learn more and talk with your kids about the risks.

PS: Any adults considering edibles or other cannabis products as a sleep aid should be advised that THC causes a significant spike in blood pressure and heart rate for at least 30-60 minutes after consumption, which can contribute to heart attacks and strokes, especially if you have hypertension, diabetes, or other cardiovascular issues. Cannabis also may interfere with blood thinners, antidepressant/antianxiety medications, and many other prescription drugs.

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