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by Julia Peterson
Right after college I started working at a medical marijuana doctor’s office in San Francisco’s SOMA district. I did patient intakes, where I asked intrusive questions to strangers about their medical histories, their medical records, and why they wanted to use medical marijuana.
I met elderly people with chronic pain and veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I met the kind of people whose endearing stories have won the sympathy of 18 states where medical marijuana is legal.
I also met the patients who the medical marijuana movement rarely highlights—patients under 18. I mostly hated my job, but meeting those 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds and their parents made me really proud of where I worked.
Moms and dads who brought in their teenage children were easy to spot in the waiting room. They all looked the same, they clutched thick stacks of medical records to their chests, their eyes darting around the room, wondering who’s judging them. They downloaded the intake form off our website and neatly typed out the answers, which almost nobody does.
It’s hard for most people to imagine why a parent would take this step. Not only condoning, but also facilitating and even supporting your own teen’s marijuana use? Most people would seriously question their parenting. Some might even call it child abuse. But most people have never met their teens. If they did, they would realize sometimes medicine is a cost-benefit analysis.
I met teenage girls who had been in and out of residential treatment for anorexia, and said marijuana improved their relationship towards their body and helped them stay in recovery. I met LGBT teens who were really struggling. I met teens who engaged in self-harm and teens with histories of suicide attempts. All of them had long histories of various psychiatric medications and psychotherapies in their short lives. They reminded me a lot of friends I had in high school.
Teens seek relief from their inner-demons by using marijuana regularly in every single state. They are the minority of teenage marijuana users. Most simply experiment and end up never using it again or using it only rarely or using it socially like others use alcohol.
I knew teens in high school that used, and overused, marijuana as a way to deal with their mental health issues. I saw how it drove them apart from their parents at a time when they needed them the most. It was a source of secrecy and contempt and misunderstanding, so much anger and hurt feelings. Kids staying in the basement all the time, they don’t want to go home for dinner because mom might notice they’re stoned. I remembered how horrible it felt, awkwardly being at a friend’s house as they had a screaming match with their mom over pot. It’s hard enough to feel close and honest with your parents at that age, especially when you’re struggling with a mental health issue.
That’s why it always felt like something kind of magical was happening when these struggling teens and their moms and dads left my desk and went back to meet the doctor. No parent wants his or her teen to use marijuana. But these parents couldn’t afford a reason to lose an honest and trusting relationship with their teen.
It also felt like I was witnessing an actual productive way to approach teens at risk for addiction. Bringing them to a doctor to have a genuine and serious conversation about the actual medical benefits and real risks of using marijuana—that sounds like a way to actually get through to a young adult safely.
Too often at-risk teens turn their ears off when adults tell them about all the harms of drug use. But a doctor who understands that depression can be unbearable and sympathizes with this method they’ve used to find relief, that’s a person who can earn an at-risk teen’s respect. That’s a messenger who might get through to them when they say there’s an important difference between using a drug to constantly escape your problems and using a drug in moderation to improve your mental health and your ability to thrive.
This is what treating drug use as a public health issue looks like. Let’s face it: what we’ve been doing for the past decades hasn’t worked. Condemning these teens, guilt tripping these teens, being utterly disappointed in these teens hasn’t worked. Kicking them off the soccer team and off of the debate team hasn’t worked. If anything, all we’ve given them is another problem, another reason to escape.