In the weeds: Examining students’ marijuana use

In+the+weeds%3A+Examining+students+marijuana+use

Liliana Greyf and Mia Calzolaio

Thea* (12) smoked marijuana for the first time at a friend’s house during her freshman year, and she felt as if her lungs were burning. Despite this unpleasant — and somewhat frightening — initial experience, Thea continued to smoke marijuana. “I think to myself, ‘Oh, if I just get used to it, or I try it again it’ll be better each time as you go on,’” she said. 

Since then, Thea smokes once every few weeks and buys edible marijuana products for her and her friends to use together. 

Thea is part of the minority of students who use — or have tried — marijuana. According to an anonymous poll of 189 students conducted by The Record, 54 students, or approximately 28.6%, have tried some form of marijuana. Only 9.7% of underclassmen students have used weed in the last three months, according to data collected by Health teacher Amy Mojica.

Marijuana can be used in many different forms: one can smoke mariijuana leaves, use a vape pen, or consume edible marijuana products. Students at the school use marijuana for a variety of reasons — the drug functions as a communal experience in social situations, a stress reliever when used alone, and an experiment for those who are curious. Some students use the drug as an escape from mental health issues and may subsequently develop a dependency on it.

The use of marijuana on school campus can result in serious disciplinary consequences, but the school strives to ensure that users of the drug have the necessary resources to end dependency or mitigate any external factors that caused such usage, Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said.

 

Social activity and peer influence

Only 15% of students polled by The Record have ever used marijuana alone. 23.3% of students use marijuana when they are with their friends, and 14.3% use it at weekend parties.

When Lilith* (12) is with her friends, smoking becomes a social activity. “I find that smoking with friends is a good way to facilitate conversation and bond with people,” she said.

On the other hand, Janice (12)*, who smokes with her friends every few months, finds that marijuana does not enhance her social experiences because it usually causes her to grow tired and fall asleep. As a result, Janice often finds that she is the only sober person in a group setting, but she does not feel that her sobriety affects how much she enjoys the gathering. 

In Lilith’s friend group, each person decides individually whether they want to smoke. “A lot of my friends in that same circle don’t smoke, and no one pressures them to do so because it’s their own personal decision,” she said. 

According to the same Record poll, 59.3% of people have at least one friend who uses marijuana. 32.9% of people have, at some point, been asked by a friend to use marijuana.

Peer influence is often a factor of one’s decision to smoke marijuana, especially since smoking usually occurs in social settings, Janice said. 

In retrospect, Ralph* (11) recognizes that his peers may have influenced his decision to smoke marijuana for the first time. “I actively sought [marijuana] out,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure if it was really out of curiosity or an indirect group pressure, like seeing [drug use] in people I admired.”

Esther* (11) chose to smoke marijuana for the first time because she wanted to have the experience she heard others discussing. “There’s actually this culture around drugs that [is] like, ‘Oh, it’s cool to try them,’ so I wanted to seem cooler and more mature, but I was still genuinely curious about what it was like,” she said.

 

Individual usage, mental health, and dependency

Lilith smokes marijuana with her friends, but also purchases and uses marijuana on her own time — about three times a week. She smokes both because she enjoys the experience and because she believes the drug calms her down. “I find that smoking helps with my anxiety,” she said. “It helps chill me out.”

Although Lilith notices that being high can help her mental health, she can become more worried while high if she is alone. “I find that I run the risk more frequently of becoming more panicked while I’m by myself, because I get into loops of thought,” she said. “It’s easy to become paranoid if you don’t have a friend checking you, [saying] ‘Dude, you’re okay, you’re not freaking out.’” Because of this feeling, Lilith prefers smoking when she is with her friends more than she does alone.

When Ralph is in a group environment, smoking functions as a natural part of the social event. However, when he is alone, Ralph finds that it is an easy way for him to deal with his emotions.

Like Ralph, many students use marijuana as an escape from mental health issues or the harsher realities of their everyday life. “When I’m alone, I have a tendency to overthink a lot, and  basically overthink myself into depression,” Georgia* (11) said. “But I don’t do that [when I am high].”

“If a student does not have the skills or resources they need to manage their feelings of distress or restlessness, or their social-emotional needs are not otherwise being met, they sometimes turn to substances as a form of self-medication,” psychologist Dr. Liz Westphal wrote.

Ciara* (12) has gotten high to avoid her emotions on multiple occasions. “I was sad and didn’t want to be able to think about why I was sad,” she said. 

Janice has witnessed her close friends “constantly numbing” themselves with drugs instead of facing their own emotions. “That was very difficult to watch,” she said.

While many students use marijuana as an escape from mental health issues, others believe that the drug will only cause further emotional problems. When Beatrice’s* (10) parents caught her using marijuana, they sent her to therapy, worried that she was going down a dangerous path.

If a student is using drugs as a form of coping with their emotions, a member of Counseling and Guidance can help them, Westphal wrote. “Our goal in all of our individual counseling work is to provide students with coping strategies that promote physical and mental health and wellness and to steer them away from maladaptive coping mechanisms like substance use and other forms of self-harm.”

Janice’s friends who were using drugs as a way to escape from mental health issues became dependent on marijuana, and many of them have now relied on it for several years. Because she had to watch her friends go through dependency, Janice only smokes once every few months and when she is with friends. “I’ve always been really conscious of the fact that I really don’t want that to happen to me,” she said.

According to a 2019 article in Healthline titled “Marijuana Can Be Addictive: Who Gets Hooked and Why,” people who use the drug are at risk for developing a dependency or addiction. People who are under the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a dependency on marijuana.

Although it is possible to become dependent on marijuana, this is the case with only about one third of users, according to marijuana research report conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Most users are able to control their intake, especially if the drug is only used in social scenarios.

“Like anything — any drug, any substance — you can become dependent on it,” Lilith said. “I think for some time over the summer, I was dependent on marijuana. And that was less fun because I was not smoking because I enjoyed it but because I had an itch to.” 

She attributes this dependency to her unhappiness during quarantine and the amount of free time she had. “I remember thinking, ‘If I smoke now I can kill three and a half hours, then take a nap and then kill the rest of the day,” she said.

Once school started in the fall and Lilith had other responsibilities, she was able to ease out of this pattern of smoking. Now, she feels more comfortable with the amount that she smokes. “I know my limits, I think,” she said. “I have a lot of experience with it, so I know what I like, I know what I don’t like. And I do it because I enjoy it.”

Ralph was dependent on marijuana for over a year, he said. Although he started by smoking only on the weekends, he quickly transitioned into smoking daily as a coping mechanism to escape reality. “I was using it as a way out, and it ended up having a big effect on my personal life,” he said.

About a month ago, however, Ralph decided to quit using drugs entirely because smoking was having a significant effect on his mental health and personal life. “Cutting off something you’re addicted to is a hard thing to do, especially cold turkey,” he said. “But I think I’m better for it.”

Still, Ralph misses the experience of being high, as it brought him relief from his daily life. “[Sobriety] takes away a lot of the happiness and the promise of life, but I’m better able to accept a lot of things, even if I don’t necessarily enjoy them,” he said. 

 

School Response

When a student demonstrates a dependence on drugs and the school is made aware of this, the administration works with Counseling and Guidance to ensure that necessary steps are taken to get the student help, Levenstein said. “The most efficient way to seek help is with your parents,” she said. “If a student does that and a parent wants to partner up with the school to pool our resources, we are very willing to do that.”

The Horace Mann Family Handbook lists “purchasing, using, possessing, or distributing” any drug, as well as “being under the influence of illegal drugs, possessing paraphernalia associated with illegal drug use, and distributing prescription drugs to others” as a major disciplinary offense. However, the school chooses to take disciplinary action against students only if they are found to be using drugs when they are present on campus. 

This is because drug use outside of school often does not affect the broader school community, Levenstein said. “I don’t think we have the right to set rules for your lives outside of school. Our general guideline is if it’s on campus or if it is disruptive enough to have an impact on life on campus, then we get involved.”

If a student is intoxicated or in possession of illegal drugs on campus, they will most likely be suspended, Levenstein said. At the same time, the administration will also offer that student help. “If you’re using drugs on campus, to me that’s showing that you have an issue with your relationship with the substance, because you’re doing something that is imperiling your status as a student at the school,” she said. 

Although drug use on campus is not tolerated, the school never penalizes a student for using drugs off-campus. “If the school learns about drug use off of our campus, we can be a resource to help students manage addiction or unhealthy behaviors,” Levenstein said. “We not only are happy to do so, but we feel obliged to do so. Learning about drug use off campus does not put students in a category that would automatically require discipline.”

The administration hears about drug use off-campus in a variety of ways. Sometimes, a student puts a moment of drug use in a personal reflection for a class. In other instances, images on social media display students’ usage of drugs. Often, a concerned friend of a student who is using drugs unsafely will speak to the school to ask for help. 

When the administration learns about drug use off-campus, they work with the Department of Counseling and Guidance to ensure that a student is getting the help they need. “Substance abuse always impairs some aspect of functioning, whether it’s academic, social or emotional,” Westphal wrote. “In the instances where we have become aware of a substance abuse issue, it’s usually come up in the course of getting to know a student who’s seeking support with some other aspect of their life.”

If the Department of Counseling and Guidance learns about a student’s problematic usage of drugs, they ask to speak with the student, Westphal wrote. “We have the student come in and ask them directly about drug use, while reassuring them repeatedly that our role is not disciplinary and that the sole reason for our concern is to ensure that the student gets connected with appropriate supports and treatment outside of school.”

The school always relays information of student drug use to their parents. Still, Levenstein believes that the school is extremely intentional about the way they involve parents in these situations. “We can take steps toward that. We would work with students to consider the approach that would make a tough conversation go as smoothly as possible,” she said.

In order to counteract drug use before it occurs, the school has an obligation to educate and inform students about marijuana, Levenstein said. Mojica spends several classes discussing substance use with all high school students each year. 

Rather than using fear tactics or scaring students with the dangers of drugs, Mojica chooses to provide entirely factual information and statistics to her students. “I tend to focus on the [drugs] that are hot topics, the ones that we know more information about, so students can have all the information and can now risk assess for themselves in their decision making process.”

 

Physical effects: Possible dangers and benefits

The use of marijuana is dual in nature: it poses mental risks and physical dangers, as well as possible benefits. Marijuana is often associated with treatment of other illnesses: it can help with chronic pain, ease insomnia, and treat various anxiety disorders, according to a 2017 report titled “Therapeutic Benefits of Cannabis and Cannabinoids” written by the Committee on the Health Effects of Marjuana at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 

The use of marijuana for medical purposes is legal in 35 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At the same time, marijuana can have negative physical impacts: it can lead to respiratory diseases and change the chemical makeup within one’s brain.

Specifically for underage users, marijuana can impair functions such as attention, memory, and learning, according to a 2014 study conducted by Joanna Jacobus and Susan F. Tapert titled “Effects of Cannabis on the Adolescent Brain.” Because a young person’s brain is not entirely developed, the use of marijuana can be associated with reduced cognitive function in teens.

In addition to long-term physical effects, the use of marijuana can also create unwanted situations, Mojica said. “You’re stepping outside of your typical cognitive thought process, decision making process, and behaviors, where you’re stepping away from control of that, potentially, and so one of the risks is you make a choice that you wouldn’t otherwise if you weren’t on that drug.”

Teddy Ganea (11) has not used any drugs because he is aware of the possible repercussions. “My friends are not people who use drugs, my parents would certainly not tolerate that, [and] I wouldn’t even know where to get them if I wanted to,” he said. “But more importantly, I don’t want to. I don’t feel like impairing my brain.”

Ganea worries about the effects marijuana could have on his mental perception. “I really value being in control over myself,” Ganea said. “To have another substance in my body telling my body what to do — that thought terrifies me.”

The risk of a bad experience on drugs — what is often referred to as a “bad trip” — is an unwanted possibility. According to the same Record poll, 14 students, or about 7.4%, experienced a “bad trip” while high. 

Once, while Beatrice got high alone at home, she had one of these experiences. “My whole brain felt like it was exploding,” Beatrice said. “I thought I wasn’t going to wake up.”

Beatrice believes that the “bad trip” occurred because she ate too much of a chocolate bar infused with marijuana. Now, Beatrice is more careful with her dosage, limiting the amount of the edible she consumes. 

The form of marijuana being ingested can also affect the user’s experience. According to an article in Healthline from 2019 titled “Why Experts Consider Vaping to Be ‘Toxic Inhaling,’” smoking marijuana using a ‘cart’ or cartridge that connects to an electronic cigarette prompts possible dangers. 

Even in states where marijuana is legal, it is cheaper to buy fake cartridges than licensed and tested products — a vape pen with a half gram cartridge of THC from a dispensary costs upwards of $55, whereas an illegal cartridge from a street dealer might cost $25 or cheaper, according to a 2019 New York Times article titled “Marijuana and Vaping: Shadowy Past, Dangerous Present.” Accessing cartridges through illegal dealers also increases the possibility of receiving and ingesting a substance that is not actually marijuana. 

According to the same article, vape oils often contain other additives, like vitamin E acetate, a substance thought to be responsible for a number of lung illnesses. Dangerous additives are always a possibility, but they are particularly prevalent in an illegal market. No matter the substance in them, these cartridges are more harmful to respiratory health than any other consumption of marijuana, according to the article in Healthline. 

In general, one of the biggest dangers of using drugs, especially drugs bought on the street, is the potential for an adverse reaction, Mojica said. “You can’t guarantee you’re getting something that’s not laced with something else, so you’re taking a risk where you’re hoping nothing else is in there, so you could have a really unexpected reaction.” 

Because Janice understands these risks, she does not believe that marijuana has any benefits for a user that is under the age of 21. At a young age, a person is not able to reflect on their body and health in the proper ways before using drugs, she said. “I don’t think that at this age you’re able to prevent yourself from using it as a crutch a lot of the time.”

Still, Janice chooses to smoke marijuana every so often. “Part of it’s because I’m a teenager and I’m stupid,” she said. “And I don’t really know the consequences — they don’t really register in my brain.”

Colette* (11), who is anonymous because she is worried about judgement from her peers for her stance on drugs, understands the possible risks of smoking, which is why she has never before used marijuana. Her family has a history of asthma, so she is weary of potentially harmful substances. She also does not like the reputation that marijuna carries. “Honestly, I think weed is trashy,” she said. “I think smoking looks bad; I don’t like it.”

However, the stigma that those who smoke marijuana are “lazy and stupid” is not accurate, Lilith said. “I do smoke a lot of weed,” she said. “I also do well in school. I’m a really good student.” 

On the other hand, Thea feels that the stigma can protect students. “If [smoking marijuana] was accepted — like really encouraged — when I was in ninth grade, I think that would have been a lot worse for me,” she said. “I definitely would be dependent on it now.” 

Another possible risk of using marijuana is the drug’s possible connection to addiction to more dangerous substances, according to an article titled “Is marijuana a gateway drug?” published in 2020 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Early exposure to cannabinoids decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood, increasing a user’s vulnerability to addiction later in life.

However, these results are not conclusive, as other factors besides biological mechanisms are responsible for addiction, the article stated. 

 

Legalization

Because of the various risks associated with marijuana use, the drug is illegal in all but 17 states. On March 30 of this year New York state legalized the use of recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21, according to a New York Times article titled “New York Legalizes Recreational Marijuana, Tying Move to Racial Equity.” 

This change makes it legal for those over 21 to possess up to three ounces of marijuana leaves or 24 grams of concentrated forms of marijuana. However, it is still illegal for minors to use any drugs.

A 2014 study titled Implications of Marijuana Legalization for Adolescent Substance Use conducted by Dr. Christian Hopfer produced unclear conclusions — “it is unknown what adolescent consumption patterns will be if marijuana is widely available and marketed in different forms.” However, it is possible that legalization will increase availability of the drug, therefore causing an uptick in adolescent usage, according to the study. 

Because the illegality of drugs mostly affects underprivileged communities, students at the school are not entirely aware of the legal implications of their actions, Janice said. “There is this part of it as well where they feel, maybe more so than people who are less privileged, like they can’t be touched, and it’s not actually really going to hurt them.”

Attending a private school has shown Ralph the privilege associated with drug use — spending money on marijuana is not a factor to a lot of people at the school, he said. According to the same Record poll, only five of the 189 students cited having money problems as a result of their drug use. 

Often, Ralph would stop using marijuana simply because he did not have enough money to continue. “I would say I’m taking a tolerance break, but in truth I just couldn’t afford to keep on doing it,” he said.

Georgia is also aware of the financial burden of using drugs: she smokes marijuana almost every day, but only when she has enough money to do so. Whenever Georgia does not have enough money to buy marijuana, she does not smoke — it is just too expensive to keep going, she said.

*Any name with an asterisk represents a student granted anonymity.