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THC & The Teen Brain

A Bay Area drug educator urged Mendocino County parents to talk to their kids about the potential effects of regular marijuana use on children’s brains.

“What scares me is that this weed today really, really works,” substance abuse educator Ralph Cantor told a group of Laytonville community members at Harwood Hall in Laytonville on May 7. “With e-cigarette vaporizers, edibles, concentrated oils and wax, cannabis today is 25% to 90% THC.”

Cantor said there is very little hard scientific data on the long-term effects of regular marijuana use but that in 2012 Duke University published a longitudinal study following the lives of 1,000 regular pot users for 40 years.

“The only conclusive thing they had to say was that 10% of people who started between 12 and 17 had more problems later on,” said Cantor, former Alameda County Office of Education program coordinator.

After spending the day with Laytonville high school students, Cantor met with about 30 community members as part of a Laytonville Healthy Start Coalition-sponsored public forum. Cantor’s presentation can be heard in its entirety at

Using slides and hand-drawn diagrams of the brain, Cantor explained how marijuana works on the brain.

He said THC in cannabis stimulates production of dopamine, a natural “feel good” neurotransmitter. Kids between the ages of 13 and 17 who are often stoned may never learn what activities stimulate dopamine naturally, a vital part of adolescent development.

“If you’re a little bit bored, you’re not bored anymore,” said Cantor. “You feel some stress, smoke a little weed. Roll a fat one with friends, you don’t have to worry about socializing.”

Since the brains of adolescents are still developing, frequent use of cannabis may interfere with the vital process of discovering, without drugs, what activities trigger a “natural high.”

Over time, kids may end up dependent on weed to do normal things.

“Teens need to find out what makes them feel alive,” Cantor said. “That's part of growing up, and that’s what the weed is short circuiting.”

Eventually the brain, which is not accustomed to large quantities of dopamine, creates more dopamine receptor sites, which then demand more THC. As pleasure centers in the brain begin to dull, the user needs more pot to sustain a sense of pleasure and well-being.

Cantor said he is not a “drug warrior” and tries to avoid presenting pot as all good and all bad. “It’s part of the culture; it’s in kids’ lives.”

He reported to the community forum that students have told him that the community and adults they know, including parents, are not being clear about whether marijuana is okay to use at a young age.

“We need to be very clear that we’re not dragging kids into the marijuana wars,” Cantor said.

May 7 was Cantor’s second professional visit to Laytonville. His talk was so well received last year, and the audio recording got so many hits on, that Healthy Start invited him back.

Jayma Shields Spence, coordinator of Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center, said in an interview after the presentation that she and her agency have to walk a fine line talking with kids and their parents about cannabis use in the Emerald Triangle. Although the resource center receives federal funding from a Drug Free Communities grant, she wants parents and community members to know that she and the staff work with all members of the community, even adults and parents involved in growing or using pot.

“Marijuana is ingrained in the culture of this community,” Spence said. “We’re looking at second and third generations growing marijuana in our community. Our economy is based on it; there is such a history of it. I don’t want people to think that Healthy Start is going after adults selling and growing marijuana. That’s not why we are here in our community.”

“But we want to make sure our community is sending a clear message: If you’ve got kids, let’s keep the kids out of it, keep them from being involved. I want parents to feel empowered to say to their kids, ‘I don’t want you use pot’.”

Spence said when she began leading school prevention programs for Healthy Start in 2006 she found that students were getting mixed messages about pot from their parents.

“Kids said to me, ‘My parents say marijuana is a magical herb, and it’s good for people.’ It was tricky to walk into a classroom to deliver a drug-prevention message and talk about the possible harms marijuana, alcohol and other drugs have on a young body and brain.”

While Spence does not want to step on parents’ toes, she feels the parents and the community need to separate medicinal marijuana for adult use from smoking pot to get loaded as children.

Spence said some Laytonville students reported to Ralph Cantor they feel “looked down upon” by outsiders because they live in the Emerald Triangle, where “all the pot comes from.”

“You don’t do anything with your lives,” some kids reported being told by people from outside the county. “You just sell weed.”

Cantor suggested local pot growers may have something to learn from grape growers in the Napa Valley, many of whom started some time ago having discussions with their children about alcohol use. The winemakers are telling their kids that just because their parents grow grapes doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to drink alcohol.

After the presentation, a Laytonville teacher asked Cantor what to say to kids who have seen his presentation at school and are worried about their brains.

He encouraged concerned adults to find out what the teen likes about weed and why, and figure out what activities can make them feel the way they feel after using. He recommended then asking what steps the teenager is willing to take in order to change. The child should then create a plan; take the first action, and, hardest of all, maintain abstinence.

Cantor talked briefly about alcohol, citing the dangers of “40s,” 40-ounce, high-alcohol-content malt liquor drinks popular with teens.

“Adolescents don’t drink responsibly,” he said. “Alcohol puts the outer layer of your brain to sleep. When the brain sleeps and allows inhibitions to sleep, guys can become predators and girls victims. That worries me.”

Laytonville Healthy Start will be holding more community events, meetings and public forums on reducing youth substance use and abuse. To get involved, e-mail Spence at or call 984-8089. ¥¥

(A version of Mr. Cantor’s presentation is available via a youtube search. Jane Futcher is author of two novels for young adults and Women Gone Wild, a memoir about moving to northern Mendocino County.)

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