Medical Marijuana: Explaining Colorado’s new laws to your teenager

This year’s presidential elections brought no change to the presidency but the local elections in Colorado and Washington State led to new laws that will legalize recreational use of marijuana. As a parent, it is important to understand the new rules and how they may apply to your family. News of marijuana legalization and the benefits of medical marijuana may give teenagers the “ammunition” they need to justify to themselves that smoking pot is okay and can even be good for you. So, let’s examine the issues, the new laws, and medical marijuana to give you the ammunition you need to dispel the notion that smoking marijuana is okay because certain states have legalized it.

U.S. Federal Law

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) prohibits possession, cultivation, or distribution of marijuana making it an illegal substance punishable by fine and/or imprisonment.  The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is charged with enforcing federal drug laws. The DEA does not make a distinction between recreational and medical marijuana.

Federal Law versus State Law

Federal law trumps state laws in this matter giving the federal government the ability to prohibit and marijuana for all purposes and enforce its laws. Part of the issue here is that the DEA must pick and choose whom they prosecute because of limited resources giving states a gray zone of marijuana legality. You may have seen on the news federal agents storming medical marijuana dispensaries in California despite state laws allowing dispensaries.

Washington’s Marijuana Law: Initiative 502

Voters in Washington passed Initiative 502, effectively legalizing recreational marijuana use starting on December 6, 2012.  As it stands, there are no laws in place for growing or selling marijuana. So, it is illegal to sell, grow, or buy marijuana but if you happen to have it somehow you can legally consume it if you are at least 21 years of age, are carrying less than 16 ounces, and are not in the public or driving.

Colorado’s Marijuana Law: Amendment 64

Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000 and already has a system in place similar to that of California. With a doctor’s prescription patients may legally purchase and consume medical marijuana sold by medical marijuana dispensaries. Amendment 64 was passed in November of 2012 and legalizes recreational possession of less than one ounce for people aged 21 and over with many of the same provisions listed in Washington’s Initiative 502.

Florida’s Marijuana Law

Florida has very punitive laws concerning possession, sale, and possession of paraphernalia. Possession ranges from a misdemeanor resulting in 1 year of incarceration and a max fine of $1,000 to a felony charge resulting in 15 years of incarceration and a maximum fine of $10,000.

Marijuana: Health hazard, benefit, or both?

While there are certainly more dangerous drugs than marijuana, it is still a drug with various short and long term consequences. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse marijuana intoxication “can cause distorted perception, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory. “

Very little is known about the effects of marijuana use in youngsters and adolescents. Like many illegal and prescription drugs, it is difficult to determine the long term effects of drugs on still developing brains. A recent study in New Zealand found that teens who smoke marijuana frequently are more likely to experience a long-term drop in their IQ. Researchers found that the same IQ drop did not occur in users who began smoking marijuana frequently after the age of 18. This suggests that frequent pot use could be dangerous for the developing brain. However, a new study challenges these findings.The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that the use of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is risky because there is too much that is unknown about its effects on developing minds and bodies.  A research paper titled Medical Marijuana Laws and Teen Marijuana Use reported that frequent marijuana use by adolescents may increase the risk of:

  • Developing a mental health problems
  • Using other substances such as alcohol
  • Partaking in risky sexual behavior
  • Doing poorly in school

Additionally, it is an uncontroversial fact that the smoke from marijuana is carcinogenic and damages lung tissue. cites research stating that marijuana smoke has 50 -70% more carcinogens than tobacco and can cause cancers of the respiratory system.    

On the other hand, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) acknowledged that additional studies should be conducted on the potential benefits of medical marijuana.  You may have heard stories in the news recently about parents who are under scrutiny for giving medical marijuana to their children suffering from cancer or epilepsy. The parents claim that the marijuana eases the pain and suffering of their struggling children. 

Dad gives 6-year-old medical marijuana



The bottom line here is that there are too many unknown risks for children and teenagers to be recreationally experimenting with marijuana. Using marijuana for medical purposes to alleviate pain from serious health conditions does not apply to a teenager who believes he/she is justified to smoke for fun. Despite the growing popularity of medical marijuana and legalized recreational use the laws stipulate that you must be 21 years old to use and in most cases need a prescription from a doctor. In Florida, possession and use can result in incarceration and fines. Legally, physically, and mentally it is just too risky for teenagers to experiment with marijuana.

How to Talk to Your Teenager about Legalized Marijuana

Be honest with your teenager about the real risks of smoking marijuana and explain to them that although it may be legal to smoke marijuana recreationally in some states it’s always illegal for someone their age to smoke it.  The comparison to alcohol and tobacco can be helpful here to make the point that just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful.  Be clear with them that you are not going to allow them to smoke marijuana and that if they are caught doing so they will face serious consequences at home and remember to be clear about what those consequences would be. 

A good way to deepen the conversation about marijuana and drug abuse in general is to have an open and honest conversation with your teenager about the problem that they are trying to solve by smoking marijuana.  Typical problems that teenagers try to solve by smoking marijuana can include things like simple boredom to a desperate attempt to control intense anxiety.  In either case empathize with your teenager about the realness and seriousness of the problem and engage them in a conversation about how else you can help them solve the problems that they are having without smoking marijuana.  Solutions can include involvement in an afterschool activity that they are interested it or counseling services to get to the root of and treat their anxiety.  Teenagers smoke marijuana for a reason.  Understanding the reason why is essential to finding a solution to their problem.  And it is a great opportunity to help your teenager learn that they can solve their problems in healthy, non-destructive ways.   

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By Miguel Brown