At What Age Do Children Generally Start Smoking Pot?
Andrea Rice is an award-winning journalist and a freelance writer, editor, and fact checker specializing in health and wellness.
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A hallmark of being a teen is the drive to experiment and push boundaries. Sometimes, that means trying drugs. When it comes to marijuana, on average, kids who smoke pot tend to start between the ages of 12 and 16.
Smoking Pot by the Numbers
It isn’t surprising that many teens try pot as it is popularly considered less dangerous than “harder” drugs (like cocaine or heroin), and marijuana is used recreationally by many adults. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that pot is one of the most commonly used drugs by Americans. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 2.5% of the world’s population uses the substance.
So how many teens are smoking pot? The National Institute of Drug Abuse study, Monitoring the Future, found that 6.6% of eighth-graders had smoked marijuana or hashish in the past month, while 11.8% had smoked in the past year. By 10th grade, those numbers jump to 18.4% and 28.8%, respectfully. By senior year, 22.3% reported marijuana use in the past month, while 35.7% had smoked pot in the past year.
According to a 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study, about 3.1 million teens, aged 12 to 17, which adds up to 12.5% of all teens (or 1 in 8 teens), had smoked pot in the prior year. These numbers have held steady over the past few years.
The Influence of Others
The marked increase in use between 8th and 10th grade teens (from nearly 12% to almost 30%) is significant, because research tells us that peer usage is one of the main reasons that teens begin to smoke marijuana. Teens who have siblings, other relatives, or friends who do drugs are more likely to try drugs themselves than adolescents who do not have drug-using friends.
The transition between middle school and high school also leads to new disruptions and stressors for kids that can make drug experimentation more likely. These changes include new schools, new friends, new pressures, the desire to fit in, and different expectations.
The influence that others have on teen substance use is not limited to their peers in school. Teens whose parents drink, smoke cigarettes, or smoke marijuana are also more likely to try those behaviors.
Availability of Pot Is a Key Factor
Children who live in neighborhoods where drugs are sold openly or who go to schools where their peers sell drugs are significantly more likely to begin smoking pot at an earlier age. Researchers have also found that if teens believe that their peers approve of drug use, they will be more likely to use drugs themselves at an early age. This is because that positive perception tends to “normalize” recreational drug use.
Additionally, many states have now made recreational marijuana use legal for those 21 and over, making use among adults (as well as the many pot storefronts and ads) much more noticeable, which garners unspoken acceptability.
A double-whammy of cultural permissiveness and easy access to drugs also contribute to earlier initiation ages and a larger proportion of kids using drugs.
Other Reasons Kids Use Drugs
In his book, How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can’t, Dr. Neil I. Bernstein identifies more reasons, beyond mere availability, peer pressure, and acceptability, that kids try drugs and alcohol:
- Popular media
- Escape and self-medication
- Instant gratification
- Lack of confidence
Consequences of Early-Onset Drug Use
Experts—and even many marijuana legalization proponents—agree that the later teens begin using marijuana, the better. This is because teenage brains are still developing, a process that isn’t complete until around age 25. Smoking pot before all the brain’s pathways have matured can inhibit the development of executive function. The earlier kids begin to smoke pot, the more likely they are to experience cognitive problems.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, children who engaged in weekly marijuana use before age 18 displayed lasting harm to their intelligence, attention, and memory compared with those who began using marijuana after age 18.
Research has suggested that quitting or reducing marijuana use was not able to restore cognitive function that was damaged by regular marijuana use.
What’s more, a comprehensive review during 2011 found that people who started smoking pot before adulthood experienced significant damage to their cognitive function, impacting many areas including memory, response time, language skills, and executive function.
Additionally, studies have shown a strong link between marijuana use and the development of psychological conditions. Research has also confirmed that, despite popular opinion, smoking pot can be addictive.
A Word From Verywell
While the numbers on teen pot use may seem unsettling, it’s important to note that the majority of kids aren’t smoking marijuana. But if your child is experimenting, don’t despair. While the health risks of sustained pot use, particularly early in life, are substantial, if your child tries it once, twice, or even occasionally, the damage is likely minimal—though studies have shown that even occasional use can still potentially impair decision-making, concentration, attention, and memory.
The key is to talk to your child. Discuss your concerns and the very real brain health risks—and listen to what they have to say. If you feel the situation requires additional intervention, consult with your child’s doctor, a drug counselor, or other experts to access resources that can help.
On average, kids start smoking pot at age 16, but recent surveys point to the transition between middle school and high school as an inflection point.