A new generation of cannabis


Graphic by Anika Kapan

By Savy Behr

I polled over thirty Tam students from different grades. Some of these students’ responses will be kept anonymous per their request.

Let’s be real; if you’re a teenager in California, it’s highly (no pun intended) possible you’ve tried cannabis, which you may know as weed, pot, marijuana, among other, more obscure nicknames. Before and since the legalization of cannabis, teen consumption has increased in the majority of forms of cannabis products. In an era of such common use, let’s not pretend cannabis isn’t effectively everywhere. These days it seems like every bathroom is “hotboxed,” and every empty hallway smells “loud.” 

According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drug Use (JSAD), teen cannabis use in California increased by 18 percent after it was legalized. Cannabis use increased the most for female and white students but increased for all demographics on some level. According to a 2022 NPR article, adolescents are almost three times more likely to use cannabis than cigarettes. 

We are living in a community with a relatively strong acceptance and encouragement of cannabis use. It’s advertised in songs, movies, and even in some of our own families. Some students reported in the poll that parents provided them with cannabis and even used it with them. Cannabis use is a nuanced topic but there’s no question about the increasing acceptance. Yet, our education is lacking. Myths infiltrate our understanding. 

Firstly, cannabis has a history threaded with racism and ulterior motives in the United States. Even the common name– Marijuana– is rooted in racist stereotypes.

 “Marijuana is a term introduced in the early 20th century to associate cannabis use with Mexican immigrants in the US,” Dr. Geraint Osborne Ph.D, a professor at the University of Alberta said. Historical anti-immigrant, racist sentiment was perpetuated with popular use of the term “marijuana.” 

Anti-cannabis factions wanted to underscore the drug’s “Mexican-ness,” a 2013 NPR article reported. 

The term is also not accurate. As Osborne put it simply, “Cannabis is the proper name for the plant.” Therefore, the term marijuana will be avoided, for the sake of both righting past wrongs and accuracy. 

According to an ACLU report published in 2020, cannabis continues to put people of color in legal trouble at a disproportionate rate. “Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”

Many people believe cannabis isn’t addictive. While this may have been slightly more true for the 5 percent THC weed earlier generations remember from 1975, I assure you that you won’t find much of that in any dispensary within California or the surrounding states (or on any drug dealer’s Snapchat story). As weed becomes more chemically processed, stronger, and mass-produced, the industry needs to be regulated.

The fact that so many believe that cannabis is not addictive is one of the many myths Americans face about cannabis. There is very little research on the dangers compared to other chemicals and billions of dollars to be made.

For our purposes, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, whose impacts are as convoluted and mysterious as its spelling, is the chemical we associate with the “high.” 

I want you to think about what’s really in that $25 cannabis cartridge that your friend’s brother got you. Or, perhaps your “very legitimate” STIIZY pod. Besides tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and maybe cannabidiol (CBD), you probably can’t name a single chemical. Spoiler alert–there are indeed more and, like THC, they can be toxic. 

Much of the danger lies in the fact that we cannot say for sure what compounds can be found in many THC products. The products available range from legitimate, dispensary stuff to mysterious, synthetic substances. Allegedly, some cartridges contain Vitamin E Acetate, Polyethylene Glycols, and Medium Chain Triglycerides, which, short answer, can be toxic, according to a 2021 study by researchers from the CDC, California Department of Health, and the FDA. 

Here are some words and phrases of cannabis effects that are largely understood: depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Here are some that are not: tetrahydrocannabinol-toxicity, cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, and hallucinations. The cannabis many adolescents consume has harmful effects we aren’t aware of. 

The amount of THC in cannabis products has increased, on average, by 5.7 milligrams yearly between 1975 and 2017, according to a study by researchers at the University of Bath. Dr. Beazely Ph.D, a professor at the University of Waterloo, who specializes in the pharmaceutical makeup of cannabis, confirmed the increase actually sped up after it was legalized. For non-weed smokers or just those without much technical knowledge about what they’re smoking, five milligrams, is considered enough to experience “mild intoxication in a non-frequent user,” according to a 2023 study conducted by researchers at Louisiana State and the Desert Regional Medical Center at Western University.

 A cannabis flower is now typically 15 percent THC. Cannabis oil can be up to 95 percent. “Cannabis potency is essentially the percent of THC and/or CBD in the plant,” Beazely said. “Milligrams (mg) are used for edibles, oils, capsules, or other products that use extracted THC or CBD and are consumed orally.” 

Beazely explained that it’s difficult to convert cannabis to an equivalent dose because when cannabis is inhaled many of the compounds combust and are not inhaled.

Hopefully, that provides a scale to visualize the amounts of THC consumed, and the way that this drastic spike in THC consumption was able to happen almost right under the public’s noses, while many adults and teens smoke blissfully unaware. 

Not everyone who uses cannabis, medically or recreationally, will experience these harmful effects. We just don’t know enough yet. “The perception that cannabis isn’t addictive probably comes from cannabis being arguably less addictive than other substances (cocaine, opioids, alcohol) and the withdrawal symptoms for cannabis are typically less severe than for alcohol, opioids, etc,” Beazely said. 

While cannabis might be relatively less harmful, it’s still an addictive drug. But talking about “addictiveness” won’t scare people away from using cannabis. It won’t solve the problem – instead, we need to understand the problem. It doesn’t take a scientist to tell us that commonly used substances need to be tested and reliable, whether or not we necessarily should be using them. This is another reason why legalizing cannabis was a good thing, it makes researching its effects much easier. Canada is slightly ahead of us when it comes to regulations on cannabis and that can be partly attributed to their legalizing it years prior to even California. 

New research and discussion around teen cannabis use is essential to ensure harm reduction, instead of an ineffective crackdown. Yes, the numbers do appear to be climbing but we see more and more effective treatments for cannabis dependence, more resources being dedicated to researching cannabis, and ideally eventually more regulation in the federal legislature. “As cannabis use and youth cannabis have increased (this was happening before legalization too) more and more addiction/treatment centers have gained expertise in dealing with cannabis use disorder and addiction,” Beazely said. 

It’s obvious that teens (and adults) smoke mostly because they enjoy feeling high. But not all effects of cannabis intoxication are pleasant in the least, which the same LSU study emphasizes, having observed psychological effects like panic, fear, and depression. Acute intoxication also affects the heart and vascular system, “resulting in cannabis-induced tachycardia and postural hypotension,” the study states. 

They observed lethargy and hyperkinesis, a condition of “persistent restlessness,” especially in youth between middle and high school age. These symptoms may last days. They also observed respiratory disorders. The study provides a list of diagnoses that can be a result of cannabis toxicity: allergic and environmental asthma, anxiety disorders, trial tachycardia benzodiazepine toxicity, brief psychotic disorders, delirium, depression hallucinogen use, panic disorder, and primary hypersomnia. 

Many of these effects are long-lasting. Tachycardia, hypotension, hyperemesis, among other symptoms, can all last. If you’re diagnosed with cannabinoid hyperemesis (vomiting), the only treatment is to no longer use cannabis. If you continue to, the uncontrollable vomiting will return.

There are also a number of mild symptoms you may have experienced: dry mouth, headache, swollen eyes, extreme fatigue, rapid heartbeat, feeling faint, and vomiting. Maybe you’ve just felt foggy after taking edibles or maybe you get a headache. Maybe you’ve “greened out,” a common term for what can often be something like a THC overdose, although there’s not a clear definition.

 “Once you consume 20-30 mg of THC, and, particularly if you aren’t a regular user, there is an increased risk of cardiovascular effects and psychiatric effects,”Beazely said. When asked to indicate when the THC content of a cannabis product became potentially dangerous, zero students answered correctly. 

“It’s a scary thing to witness because I don’t feel like I’d be prepared enough to help them if things got really bad,” said a Tam senior, describing watching a friend “green out.”

Tam students described the experience as “terrifying,” saying they’d experienced feeling like the “walls were moving,” or that “the sky was falling.”

However, this isn’t necessarily a reason to sound the alarms and make weed a class-one illegal substance once again. I’m for harm reduction all the way. There’s evidence to believe that legalizing all addictive substances would prevent violence, poverty, and fatal overdoses in the long run. 

Dr. Brad Poulos Ph.D. of Toronto Metropolitan University, highlights four key factors where legalization can reduce harm. Firstly the government can regulate the production of cannabis, meaning they can test for mold and pesticides. “The legacy, or illicit or ‘black,’ market doesn’t do that,” Poulos said. 

Legalization reduces crime in two key ways, as well. Fewer people are in prison for cannabis offenses when cannabis consumption is not a crime. Given our country’s high rate of recidivism, meaning people returning to prison within a certain time period, this is a good thing. Legalization also prevents organized crime. “It’s much more difficult for organized crime to get involved since the industry is tightly regulated,” Poulos said.

Lastly, if cannabis is legal, educating people on the risks becomes much more simple. “The government can mandate all kinds of harm reduction oriented educational material be created by the industry,” Poulos said. “Plus the government itself can [create harm reduction programs], funded by taxes. Not feasible with an illicit market.”

It’s crucial that we are made aware of the potential dangers of cannabis and have the right to assess that risk individually. For some, cannabis use may feel worth it. For many, it won’t. 

Regardless of one’s own choices, the idea that as a generation we may be being targeted by a new industry, bent on hooking us young, the way cigarettes did to our parents and grandparents, is alarming indeed.  

In order to answer the question, “do the positives of cannabis outweigh the negatives,” we must first know who we can trust as consumers. In a world with a vast, international economy, this can be a difficult question, but it is not one without an answer.

The cannabis industry is exploding in size and magnitude. There is an incredible amount of money in the cannabis industry. According to a 2022 Forbes article, U.S. cannabis sales could top $72 billion, if the 18 remaining states legalize it. If not, it could still reach over $57 billion in 2030. However, Forbes did not appear to say these states would be legalizing cannabis anytime soon. Either way, this is an astonishing amount of money. 

The cannabis industry is not really comparable to any other industry currently, however the closest, according to Dr. Osborne, the cannabis industry is comparable to cigarettes, fast food, and alcohol.

A study by researchers from Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences as well as Oklahoma State University, implied that the real villains may be those who perpetuate conflicts of interest in research and policy-making. This study reflects what can only be called a conflict of interest (COI). They evaluated nine eligible articles for COIs and found seven out of nine contained some disclosed or undisclosed COI. Meaning, 77.8 percent had at least one author with a COI in their history. Only 14.2 percent had results favoring the treatment group and 28.6 percent had conclusions favoring the treatment group. Essentially, less than two-thirds of this cannabis research had resulted in consumer’s favor, were completely trustworthy, or both. In a new field with potentially severe consequences, this doesn’t look great.

“The cannabis industry has rapidly accrued significant wealth and influence and among other activities has initiated contact with the scientific community, funding research, supporting conferences, and so on,” a study published by Stanford University and the Society for the Study of Addiction said. “This creates potential for conflicts of interest regarding scientific work similar to those generated by producers of addictive products.”

When you look up “cannabis marketing conflict of interest,” the first result is an article by Cannabiz Media. In the closing line of the first paragraph, this article states, “From Alaska to Florida and nearly every state in between, stories of conflicts of interest have become quite common. It seems as though even regulators find it hard to resist the allure of cashing in on legal cannabis.” The Department of Cannabis Control, which provides grants to researchers and assists those unfairly harmed or prosecuted for cannabis distribution, are “cashing in” on conflict of interest situations, according to Cannabiz Media.

Our school, like arguably most in the country, has a distinct population of students who use cannabis. “I think the perception is that there’s a lot of wealth in this community, so people have access to [cannabis]. But I don’t believe it’s hard to get access to cannabis,” Nathan Bernstein, Tam High’s dean of student services said. 

Many students feel that cannabis use is normalized, some said even more so than alcohol. “I think that cannabis has become a very normalized thing, especially amongst my peers and social media,” one Tam senior said. “I’ve also noticed that adults have become much more lenient towards smoking weed and letting their kids smoke.” 

This may be something characteristic of California, considering our decades-old cannabis culture, compared to other states. However, Tam students reported witnessing this attitude both in in-person interactions and on social media. Cannabis was overwhelmingly described as both normalized and an everyday part of life in and outside of school. 

“It’s like everyone uses it. People get high at school, after school, driving around, and stuff. I know people who are never not high, like they take their stizzys with them like pets,” one Tam junior said.

This sentiment may be an exaggeration but it is a wakeup call. As a generation, we are dependent on cannabis, the bottom line. The question is, how will this dependence cause us to fare emotionally and physically later in life? So many of us remain unaware of these risks and this can be fixed. 

So, what is Tam High doing to help us with cannabis? “I would say that we [likely] have more counseling resources and wellness resources than the majority of schools around the country,” Bernstein said. Tam’s mental health resources, in part because of the resources available in our area, are indeed extensive.  

There are two classes offered: Just Say No and Escape The Vape. Some students criticized the names, saying they would be dissuaded from taking the class for the name alone. 

“Who would ever choose to take a class called Escape The Vape? If you’re a teenager who actually wants help, that’s still something you don’t want to do,” Tam senior Luca Fazio said. 

“Schools have a responsibility, through teachers, [through] communities, to stay up and stay current on this stuff. Right now, the biggest thing is obviously fentanyl … the district is on the Fentanyl train,” Bernstein said.  

So how do we make cannabis education a priority in the face of a deadly drug? The answer is: we don’t. But Tam students are capable of being educated on both drugs within an extensive curriculum with trained teachers. Tam has the resources to do this and plenty of motivation to create this. 

Education is a crucial start. “We were mainly taught that weed is a gateway drug and that drugs are bad. I know very little about the negative effects of THC,” another Tam senior said.

The 2019 California Healthy Kids survey showed that cannabis use in all of California remained highest among white students and mixed students who reportedly use cannabis 18 days out of 30. Latino, African American, and Pacific Islander students showed the second highest rates of use, using sixteen out of thirty days.

 In 2020, Hispanic Californian’s made up 41.7 percent of cannabis arrests. Black residents made up 22.3 percent and white residents made up 21.3 percent.

So, amidst many potent, accessible, and illegitimate products, how do we, “use wisely?”

While we can’t ever call teen cannabis use “safe,” it is very possible to reduce harm to body and brain when partaking. According to Beazely, products with a lower THC content are safer. 

“[You should] use regulated (legal) products as they often have limits on THC levels and undergo quality control,” Beazely added. 

It’s ridiculous to say that old-fashioned cannabis joints, blunts, et cetera, are healthy because they are plants. It’s not some vegan, organic alternative. There is no 100 percent healthy way to use cannabis. However, there is some element of truth within this satirical take. 

If for any reason you plan to choose unregulated, illegal products, it tends to be the case that cannabis flower, even illegal cannabis, is safer, because it’s less likely to contain unknown components and is easy to identify. 

“Illegal oils, edibles, and powders would be the riskiest because there might be other components, including synthetic cannabis, of which there are hundreds,” Beazely said. 

Tam students do seem to come to this conclusion on their own. Many speak to firsthand experience with suspicious products.

 “If I buy a STIIZY [common brand of battery and THC cartridge] I am able to check the authenticity of the product with a QR code on the packaging, but if I get weed from a friend or a plug there isn’t really a way for me to make sure the product is safe,” one Tam junior said. 

Adolescents are more vulnerable to the negative effects of cannabis. Dr. Beazely cited two reasons for this. “One is that younger people are more likely to use cannabis and drive (or be a passenger),” Beazely said. Teens are not taught extensively that driving high is as dangerous as driving drunk. “The other side-effect of cannabis-induced psychosis, which is more common in younger users vs. older users.

Our age doesn’t indicate unhealthy habits. It’s very much the opposite, in the ways that as adolescents our brains are already primed to form new neurons- meaning healthy habits among much more. We just need a little structure. 

This phenomenon, neuroplasticity, is discussed more in-depth in a Tam News article published earlier this year. The pandemic changed our brain’s physical makeup, the article shows, so our habits and behaviors changed. Our level of cannabis consumption may have changed in this time. While our brains are highly vulnerable, they’re also highly flexible if we change our behaviors.

So many people do and will continue to use cannabis frequently. That’s exactly why we need to devote resources to understanding both the potential harms and benefits of the substance. We need a cohesive cannabis education as well as support around cutting down use. I don’t want to be part of another generation that is duped by businesses that don’t care about our health and well-being. Cannabis that is relatively safe and a culture that is highly versed in its risks is not impossible.