Justifying the high: Despite health warnings, some students choose to smoke marijuana for sleep, stress, they say

Editor’s note: ThreeSixty has changed the names of students in this story.

SARAH WAS IN eighth grade the first time she smoked marijuana.

She was getting food with friends from a youth council when someone asked her if she wanted to smoke “weed.” Sarah was with people she trusted, she said, so she figured, “Why not?”

Now a 16-year-old high school student in the Twin Cities, Sarah has continued to smoke marijuana. The primary reason she smokes now, she says, is to help with insomnia.

“I was taking melatonin before,” Sarah said, “but melatonin would give me the weirdest dreams and I didn’t like it, so I started smoking weed before I went to bed and that helps me.”

In many schools, illegal mari­juana use is present in student life. While experts say marijuana use can be bad for students’ develop­ing brains, some local teens justify smoking marijuana, saying they use it to deal with stress and sleep.

Sarah isn’t alone. A 2015 survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that, for the first time, high school seniors are smok­ing more marijuana each day than cigarettes. The study says 6 percent of high school seniors are smoking marijuana daily.

Sarah also isn’t alone in using marijuana to self-medicate. Jacob, a 17-year-old high school student in the Twin Cities, also smokes marijuana to help with sleep, he said. He said smoking is “especially nice” when dealing with the late-night, early-morning sleep sched­ule of a high school student.

Michael, another 17-year-old Twin Cities student, says he smokes marijuana to deal with the stress that comes with being a high school student.

“On a positive end, I think I’m more relaxed overall,” Michael said. “I feel like I come back from the weekends more refreshed.”

While their reasons vary, all three students also spoke about the social aspects of smoking marijuana. All three began smoking through friends—not for self-medi­cating purposes. All three said they still smoke with friends for fun. One of them even said smoking “has made me more social.”

Effects of marijuana

Marijuana plays a part in St. Paul Central Social Worker Steve Collins’ work every day, he says. Smoking marijuana is a significant issue that negatively affects high schoolers’ emotional, social and academic growth and family connectedness, he said.

Collins believes smoking mari­juana also can arrest emotional development, he said.

“If part of the way you teach yourself to deal with the world emotionally is by getting high or using,” Collins said, “then that becomes one of your chief coping strategies and you are no longer able to deal with the world without it.”

Marijuana’s effect on the still developing brain of young people has been a point of study. While marijuana, which is legal in some form in 23 states (including Minnesota) and the District of Columbia, has been used legally for medical treatment, some studies suggest smoking marijuana at a young age can have adverse effects on memory, learning and impulse control, as well as on cognitive functions (although some studies also have shown conflicting results).

Tom Arneson, research manager at the Office of Medical Cannabis in Minnesota, said there are many risks to the developing brain, which develops into a person’s 20s. Arneson said some of the chemicals found in cannabis may have a negative impact on cognitive function.

Marijuana also can bring out psychotic diseases such as schizophrenia earlier, especially in patients with higher risk of developing these diseases due to early child mistreatment or family history, according to Arneson.

“Things that are long-term, they’re developing in the medium-term, but you don’t see them until the long,” Arneson said.

Marijuana also can decrease family connectivity and cause family conflict, according to Collins.

He also said, in his observations, marijuana typically has a negative effect on students’ academic performances.

“What’s hard about the marijuana thing is that it is like water over a rock,” Collins said. “You don’t notice it right away, but slowly over time, you can watch the scope of that stuff go down. So you can see the trajectory of the kids’ grades start to dip slowly over time.”

Students see marijuana as ‘unharmful’

Yet more and more students are seeing marijuana as an unharmful drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse study found that only 31.9 percent of high school seniors believe regular use of marijuana could be harmful, the lowest percentage to date.

Some students are aware of the risks and still choose to smoke. Jacob said he was aware of the risks, but that he preferred to live his life how he chose. He also said he wasn’t planning to stop smoking marijuana until it was absolutely in his best interest.

Sarah said she would likely take breaks in the future because marijuana triggers her anxiety. And Michael said he would likely continue to smoke until he learned to deal with stress better.

“I feel like at some point I’ll reach an emotional maturity where I won’t really need it anymore,” he said.