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The Dangers Of Alcohol & Marijuana Use For Teens

by Landmark Recovery

August 7, 2019
Teenagers sitting around a park bench

If you’ve got teens in the house, you’ll almost certainly find issues with alcohol and marijuana use that come about during their formative years.

While experimentation is a normal part of growing up, either of these substances can be dangerous when used recklessly.

The best thing you can do as a parent is to educate yourself while letting your teens know they can always speak with you openly and without fear of major repercussions.

Although the vast bulk of teens don’t engage in risky behavior, the dangers of alcohol and marijuana used by young, inquiring teens shouldn’t be overlooked.

We’ll take a look at drinking first. How can this perfectly legal substance imperil teens?

Alcohol Use for Teens

While alcohol is considered socially acceptable, it’s one of the most damaging substances when abused. Sadly, it also happens to be the most commonly abused substance among young Americans.

Although illegal for anyone under 21 to drink in the US, we all know this law is overlooked by inquisitive teens.

Even though the safest amount of alcohol for teens is none whatsoever, trying to stop the average teenager from drinking is futile. What you should do as your youngster’s most influential role model is educate them about sensible drinking habits.

Teens drink for many reasons, whether it’s from peer pressure, coping with stress and boredom or the simple and understandable desire to experiment. Those reasons fall outside the scope of today’s study, though.

Instead, we’ll look at 10 core dangers associated with alcohol use in teens.

Dangers of Teen Drinking

  • Binge Drinking and Its Knock-On Effects
  • Alcohol Poisoning
  • Development of Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Injuries Leading To ER Visits
  • Fatalities
  • Affects Brain Development
  • Growth and Endocrine Effects
  • Increases Risk of Sexual Assault
  • Impaired Academic Performance
  • Trigger for Other Dangerous Behaviors

Binge Drinking and Its Knock-On Effects

According to a 2010 report from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), there are roughly 10 million underage drinkers in the US.

6.5 million of these 10 million youngsters were binge drinkers but what does that mean?

NIAAA (The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) expresses binge drinking as:

  • 5 drinks in 2 hours for males
  • 4 drinks in 2 hours for females

By drinking so much so quickly, blood alcohol concentration (BAC) puts serious strain on the liver. The liver is unable to process the alcohol as it keeps hosing the system and this can bring about a range of damaging short-term effects as well as more dramatic longer-term issues.

In some young binge drinkers, consuming alcohol excessively in truncated periods of time leads to liver damage. Studies have show elevated liver enzymes in binge drinking teens while the problem is worsened if the young person is overweight or obese. When there’s an accompanying weight issue, even moderate drinking can cause elevated liver enzymes.

As well as these pressing health concerns, binge drinking can also precipitate other issues outlined below since the teen in question is likely to be rendered insensible by drinking so much so quickly. This level of alcohol consumption can also bring about alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning occurs when the amount of alcohol in the blood reaches toxic levels. With the liver struggling to process the alcohol efficiently enough and the bloodstream continually bombarded, this can result in a range of unpleasant symptoms from vomiting and blacking out through to loss of coordination and even death. With over 2000 Americans dying each year from alcohol poisoning, the risk of fatality is statistically small but still real.

Since body weight and tolerance for alcohol are mitigating factors in the likelihood of alcohol poisoning occurring, the risk is heightened for teens who tend to be lighter and less tolerant to alcohol than adults.

It pays to teach your teens that alcohol poisoning has far more serious ramifications than a foul hangover and a spot of sickness. Educate them, too, on what they should do if they suspect one of their friends has alcohol poisoning. This starts by calling 911.

As with all aspects of teen drinking, honesty and complete transparency is the best policy when you’re discussing the issue. Speak from your own experience rather than sounding like a medical textbook. Your teens will respect that and they’re far more likely to take heed of personalized accounts than sensationalized horror stories.

While alcohol poisoning could affect your teen today, it’s also worth glimpsing into the future to see what adverse effects could be triggered later down the track.

Development of Alcohol Use Disorder

In the Report to Congress 2018 on The Prevention and Reduction of Underage Drinking, individuals who start drinking early in life are said to be at heightened risk of developing an alcohol use disorder later in life.

Also, NIAAA defines a low risk of developing an alcohol use disorder as females drinking no more than 3 drinks a day and 7 drinks a week. For males this definition allows for 14 drinks a week but no more than 4 on a given day. Sadly, this does not reflect the drinking habits of many binge-drinking teens.

In fact, there are thousands of emergency room visits from teens each year due to alcohol-related problems.

Injuries Leading To ER Visits

One of the most common forms of backlash from teen drinking comes in the form of the many injuries drunkenness can bring about.

In 2011, 189,000 under-21’s visited ER with alcohol-related injuries or severe intoxication.


If the figures concerning injuries and hospitalization seem sobering, alcohol is instrumental in over 4000 deaths of young Americans every year.

With 1580 fatalities occurring as a result of car crashes and 1269 from murders, alcohol also triggers suicide in almost 500 under-21’s each year with a further 245 dying from alcohol poisoning and other alcohol-related injuries.

Educating your teen about alcohol use could literally be a matter of life or death so don’t put that talk off.

Affects Brain Development

Another unfortunate effect of drinking in young people is the way in which developing brains can be negatively impacted.

During the teenage years, the hippocampus and frontal lobe undergo the most substantial changes. These areas of the brain are associated with impulse control, motivation, and addiction.

Beyond this, alcohol is a neurotoxin meaning it can actually poison the brain. If underage drinking triggers sustained and heavy drinking in adulthood, cognitive damage escalates further. Memory, motor skills, and coordination can all be thrown out of kilter.

There are more potentially adverse physical effects beyond impaired brain development, too.

Growth and Endocrine Effects

Drinking too much alcohol when the body is undergoing marked hormonal changes can upset hormonal balance and stunt growth.

Animal studies have pointed to a chance of the way the reproductive system grows being affected, too.

Increases Risk of Sexual Assault and Unprotected Sex

Teens who drink are far more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

When this is consensual, it’s still by no means safe. From STDs to unwanted pregnancies, the consequence of unprotected sex can be wide reaching and often dire. In the worst scenario, teenagers under the influence of alcohol are in more danger of suffering sexual assault.

In the same way, alcohol can also elevate the chance of your teen engaging in other risky behaviors.

Trigger for Other Dangerous Behaviors

As well as risking problems with the law, teens who drink alcohol are also exposed to the chance of getting in a car with drunken drivers.

They are also more likely to try other drugs when under the influence of alcohol, marijuana in particular.

Impaired Academic Performance

As crowning insult, teens that drink excessively are also liable to see their grades start to plummet.

What, then, can you do to help your teen navigate these murky waters and avoid some of the shower of negative effects alcohol use can bring about?

How You Can Help Your Teen Not To Drink Excessively

The key is to establish a frank and ongoing dialogue where you make it clear your teen can speak to you about anything at any time without any fear of serious backlash.

While it might sound defeatist, it’s better to accept the reality that your teen is almost inevitably going to experiment with alcohol than to adopt the ostrich approach only to see them come to grief.

Since alcohol can also increase the risk of your teen using marijuana, read on to see some of the negative effects using this drug can bring about in young people.

Marijuana Use for Teens

With regulations surrounding marijuana loosening all the time, the number of teens using the substance has increased tenfold from 1991 to 2017 according to US federal health stats.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has some more eye-opening data about marijuana use in young Americans for 2016:

  • 5% of 8th grade students used marijuana at least once in the previous month
  • 14% of 10th grade students used marijuana at least once in the previous month
  • 23% of 12th grade students used marijuana at least once in the previous month

With so many teenagers continuing to experiment with marijuana, what are the main dangers associated with this drug?

Dangers of Teen Marijuana Use

Regardless of your stance on marijuana – and, as medical benefits are increasingly revealed, this is resulting in a less stigmatized attitude toward the drug – there are a range of negative effects teens can experience from using it.

Associated Risks of Smoking

Smoking weed in the form of joints, often accompanied by tobacco, is still one of the most common delivery methods for this drug.

Any teens smoking marijuana are not only exposing themselves to the risks associated with tobacco consumption, they’re also more likely to start smoking cigarettes as well as pot if they start introducing nicotine to their system.

One of the positive knock-on effects of the increasing legalization of marijuana is a shift away from the conventional way of smoking in favor of edibles, vaping and smoking marijuana without tobacco, usually in the form of a bong or pipe. While this will not prevent any of the other ill effects we’ll outline below, if teens are not smoking tobacco, that’s at least one positive to be drawn.

So, how about problems beyond those linked to smoking?

Issues with Cognitive Development

Recently, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed marijuana use among teens could be even more harmful than alcohol for teens’ cognitive development.

Lead author of the study expected to find a negative impact but admitted to being surprised at the extent of this impairment. According to the study authors, cognitive function changes were “more pronounced than those observed for alcohol.”

This meta-analysis of 69 previous studies shows that, while cognitive development can indeed come about, abstaining from cannabis can go some way toward mitigating this damage.

The common thread throughout all research into marijuana and cognitive function is that memory and executive functioning can be noticeably impaired. To salt the wound, those who experiment with marijuana early in life may find it tougher to process new information or to react appropriately to complex stimuli.

While these issues can affect teens today, how about consequences further down the track?

Later Issues with Mental Health

If your teen is a particularly early starter and ends up using marijuana before the age of 12, they’re twice as likely to experience a serious mental illness compared to those who don’t start using the drug until the age of 18.

Also, while many teens may use marijuana to self-medicate if they’re feeling depressed, heavy and ongoing marijuana use can end up making them feel more depressed. It’s a vicious circle.

Legal Ramifications

Marijuana offenses can carry relatively severe legal consequences even for teenage offenders. While more and more states are legalizing marijuana use and relaxing penalties, this is certainly not the case across the board.

The issue can be inflamed if your teen starts consuming so much marijuana they are tempted to sell to their friends in order to fund an escalating habit they simply can’t afford. Being charged with supplying marijuana could easily lead to jail time.

It goes unsaid you should educate your teen about the dramatic and long-term impact a criminal record can have in all areas of life.

Loss of Motivation

Arguably the most deleterious effect for teens smoking marijuana is the way THC can impact motivation.

One on level, this can lead to a reduced interest in normal and healthy activities. If you see your teen moving away from sports and spending more time in a darkened room, it might be time to intervene.

The other way de-motivation can strike is in terms of study habits. Students who use marijuana are more likely to drop out of high school and tend to get lower grades.

Memory and Concentration

Those poor grades can be a result not just of a loss of motivation induced by marijuana but also through the way it affects the short-term memory.

Until recently, studies had been to some degree equivocal although recent research has revealed that even a single dose of THC – the psychoactive component of marijuana – can acutely impair both verbal and working memory.

With teens consuming marijuana finding it harder to focus on their work and finding it tougher to remember what they need to remember, this can lead to a dip in performance at school. Unfortunately, this often coincides with those crucial years leading up to college admission and can extend into those early college years with damaging results.

Problems are not limited to schoolwork, though.

Problems When Driving

Starting to drive is challenging enough without marijuana tossed into the equation.

Driving under the influence of marijuana complicates judgment of distances while also dramatically impacting reaction time. Carelessness behind the wheel can also lead to more chance of a speeding ticket.

Drugged driving is just as dangerous as driving when drunk. Make absolutely certain your teens are aware of all the complications that can result from taking the wheel after consuming marijuana.

Use of Other Drugs

While the concept of marijuana as a “gateway” drug has long been discussed, the vast majority of teen marijuana users do not go on to use harder drugs.

That said, those who use marijuana are more likely to try other drugs than those who don’t indulge at all.

Whether this is because of the way in which marijuana changes a teen’s developing brain and makes other drugs seem more appealing or whether it’s simply being exposed to people using and selling other drugs, this escalation remains a risk and forms yet another conversation you should openly initiate with your teenagers.

Next Steps For Alcohol & Marijuana Use

We cannot emphasize strongly enough that you shouldn’t shy away from engaging your teenage children in an open dialogue about alcohol and marijuana use. Both of these substances are a constant in today’s increasingly permissive landscape and ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

Call our Indiana treatment center at 888-448-0302 if you need any further advice on dealing with alcohol and marijuana use.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.