After a Georgia State Trooper killed an environmentalist in January, Sol turned to cannabis. They’re a 17-year-old Latine femme-presenting nonbinary teen* who lives in Atlanta, not far from where the activist was killed. They are using a pseudonym to protect their identity given their underage consumption of cannabis.
For them, the death was personal.
Manuel Esteban Páez Terán, a forest guardian known as Tortuguita, had been opposing the construction of a $90 million police-training facility dubbed Cop City. Today, the resistance to protect the trees continues. Sol is close with people on the frontlines: “Tortuguita was killed. It could’ve been them. That was the first thing I thought after I heard they died.”
The tension surrounding the project—and the militarized police response to local opposition—has left Sol scared for their loved ones. Whenever they’re feeling this way, cannabis helps. That relief is a large part of why they have been smoking since they were 15.
“I have a lot of anxiety, and I struggle a lot with that,” Sol said. “It felt like a breath of fresh air from my normal anxiety.”
Sol’s teenage weed habit doesn’t make them an outlier. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more teen girls (a category that may incorrectly include non-binary teens assigned female at birth) reported using cannabis than teen boys in 2021. This was a first for the agency, which has been conducting the Youth Risk Behavior Survey among high schoolers since 1991.
The survey did not include all gender identities, excluding non-binary and gender non-conforming as options for youth to self-identify as. It’s likely many non-binary youth who were assigned female at birth (like Sol) were forced to choose between the two. Despite the limited definitions of gender, the survey found that whereas 18% of young women reported smoking weed in 2021, only 14% of young men did, a significant reduction from 26% in 2011. Young women, however, saw only a tiny drop from 20% in 2011.
“Increased substance use by some young persons might be the result of pandemic-related stressors,” said Brooke Hoots, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s Injury Center. “A 2021 study found that during the pandemic, young females were more likely than males to use negative coping mechanisms to address stressors.”
It’s hard to imagine how the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected teens. Many missed critical years of in-person socializing with peers. Proms never happened. Graduations were canceled, too. But is the pandemic operating alone here? After all, the pandemic is just one crisis teens face. There’s also the gun violence epidemic. Now that children are back in school, they must prepare for mass shootings as guns have become the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens. For those with uteruses, there is also a right-wing attack on their right to an abortion after the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade. The GOP hasn’t stopped there, either: it is also restricting (with increasing success) access to gender-affirming health care for queer and trans youth.
As if a deadly pandemic, gun violence, and a loss of rights weren’t enough, all young people have to confront the gravity of the climate crisis. They’re the ones who must live with the long-term consequences of our leaders’ addiction to fossil fuels: floods, drought, wildfires, famine, civil unrest. On top of their daily stressors, Sol must also deal with climate change: “It’s a lot, and it gets to my head a little bit,” they said.
But when they’re feeling sad, they smoke cannabis to create the space to reflect and think more positively. For a moment, at least, everything will be OK.
“I become my own therapist,” Sol said. “Weed calms me down where it’s like, Yeah, things are really bad, but how can you get through this?”
This is not everyone’s experience—many teens simply smoke weed because they want to have fun or rebel. But how do we adults keep our teens safe? And what exactly are we protecting them from? Is the threat really a mind-altering plant? Or is it a world so broken that children are forced to seek ways to cope?
There’s no easy way to think about teens smoking weed. Is it bad? Is it good? Is it neither? It’s hard to really know because there is a lot scientists still don’t know about cannabis. It’s not easy to research or study because the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule 1 substance, which is meant to include drugs “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
While this description may hold true for a Schedule 1 substance like heroin, that’s definitely not the case for weed. In the U.S., 38 states, three territories, and D.C. have all legalized medical cannabis. From alleviating pain to improving appetite, cannabis helps people. Still, the benefits aren’t enough to paint a perfect picture of the plant and its impacts, especially on younger developing bodies. Simply put, cannabis requires more research to fully understand how it can help—and how it can harm.
“I feel like the more I learn, the less I know,” said Lynn Parodneck, a medical doctor and practitioner working with cannabis as medicine in her community.
Parodneck’s work focuses on how cannabis may help her patients’ health issues. She works with people whose ages range from 3 to 100. For instance, she’s prescribed cannabis to alleviate alcohol dependency or post-traumatic stress disorder. In some cases, patients take cannabis for only a short period of time and walk away from her care without continuing its use.
When it comes to teens, Parodneck’s work primarily focuses on harm reduction, a set of strategies built on keeping people who use drugs healthy. A study on unlicensed New York dispensaries last year found products contaminated with E. coli and salmonella. None of the products tested met the state’s standards. She’s worried about the risks associated with the black market cannabis underage consumers buy. After all, they can’t just walk into a state-regulated dispensary where they know the weed is safe.
“If you say no, teens will still use cannabis. Saying no does nothing except encourage them.”
That’s where Parodneck comes in. She works with the child and their parents to understand why the child is consuming and, then, builds a plan to prevent the child from consuming something harmful. Oftentimes, that requires working closely with the parent to give the teenager safe cannabis in regulated quantities.
And not just the part of the plant that gets kids high: Parodneck focuses on CBD, a non-psychoactive ingredient in the plant that provides many health benefits. THC, the plant’s psychoactive component that elicits a high, is reserved for those who need it medically or those who won’t let it go recreationally. She suggests to parents a “Saturday night special,” as she calls it, when teens use THC only on Saturday nights. She prefers to manage the plant in a controlled way because the brain is still developing until about age 25.
“If you say no, teens will still use cannabis,” she said. “Saying no does nothing except encourage them.”
And parents play a key role here. It’s why Parodneck works with them as partners. This can happen in less formal settings, too. For instance, Sol’s mother supplies their weed. It’s something they speak openly about because their mom smokes cannabis, too. And she has educated Sol about the dangers of not knowing where your weed comes from. Last year, a 16-year-old in Connecticut died after smoking cannabis laced with fentanyl.
“I’ve heard the stories, and it’s scary,” Sol said. “I don’t want to experience that.”
Nicola Stephenson is a mother of two teenage boys and works in the cannabis industry. Co-founder of cannabis wellness company oHHo, she talks to her sons and tries to give them the information they need to make healthy decisions. Stephenson finds herself worrying not only about what drugs her sons and their friends may someday ingest—but also about the trauma they have to continually process and carry. When President Joe Biden approved the Willow project, a massive fossil fuel investment in Alaska, she heard the news from her boys.
“I think they feel probably slightly helpless and overwhelmed because the issues feel too great,” Stephenson said. “My kids were highly aware [about the Willow project] … I think there’s a big sense of disappointment that things cannot be simpler.”
As an expert in the field, she sees value in administering low-dose products that include all the cannabinoids to teenagers. It feels safer than giving a teen Adderall or other over-the-counter medications.
“I think [low doses] can be incredibly supportive and helpful for kids to take it in the right way under the guidance of a cannabis doctor,” Stephenson said. “There is absolutely a role for cannabis, but it is about being informed.”
The issues arise when teens are not informed.
Anyone who works with cannabis knows: weed is not for everyone. People can respond differently to the plant. Take Maxine, a 21-year-old student at the University of Illinois, for example. She is using only her first name to protect herself against the stigma associated with cannabis.
Since she was 16, she’s been advocating for the environment. Before then, she was a rebellious teen curious about cannabis. Almost every time she smoked or ate an edible, however, she had a bad time. Paranoia would take over.
“It was incessant. It was gripping me,” she said. “It was just not a good feeling, and I wanted it to end.”
She had no idea about the dosage she was consuming. She didn’t know where the weed came from, either. In retrospect, Maxine wishes the adults in her life would’ve given her more guidance beyond abstinence. Moving forward, she wants to see less judgment so that teens can feel safe asking more questions and learning about how to consume safely.
“There are better ways to support [teens] than scolding or lecturing them,” she said.
Despite her negative experiences, Maxine supports the cannabis industry. She recognizes how it benefits others—and how the U.S. government has weaponized it to continue to incarcerate Black and Brown people at disproportionate rates. The fear around incarceration has fueled a lot of the stigma around it, especially among immigrant communities.
Solonje Burnett, a cannabis activist who calls herself a Weed Auntie, stayed away from cannabis until after college because her immigrant parents believed weed was the devil. Now, she sees the plant as medicine. She celebrates the young women who are turning to plant medicine to address their needs. The fact that these young people are turning to cannabis instead of alcohol or prescriptive pain medication indicates to her that they’re “probably a very thoughtful group,” Burnett said. She wants to see more nuance around conversations about cannabis consumption in youth because the issue is not so black and white.
“Instead of saying this is bad for children as a blanket statement, how about saying up until this dosage is good for a child?” she said. “That’s the kind of studies that we should be trying to figure out. What is good for a developing brain instead of saying cannabis is bad?”
“Instead of saying this is bad for children as a blanket statement, how about saying up until this dosage is good for a child?”
Sol consumes only cannabis. They aren’t interested in other substances. The same goes for T.C., a 16-year-old Black teen girl from the Bay Area who is a climate activist. She is using her initials to protect her identity given her underage consumption of cannabis. She has been actively smoking weed since she was 15. She found cannabis helpful during times of stress. And she’s mindful to not build a dependence on it, either, by taking breaks.
With summer approaching, she’s growing anxious about the wildfire season and heat advisories. Cannabis helps her deal with reality. It helps her calm down before giving a speech at a rally. It stops her brain from overthinking. She wishes adults would stop treating cannabis as “the worst thing ever” or “the most unsafest thing out there,” she said.
This behavior isn’t restricted to cannabis: being a teen girl means being judged. If a girl wears a dress that’s too short, she’s promiscuous. If she wears sweats and a hoodie, she’s a lesbian. If she speaks out, she’s got attitude. If she cries, she’s emotional. What young femmes want is simple: they just want to live freely. They want the opportunity to make decisions for themselves—even if they’ll regret some later—but also the opportunity to know better.
That requires open dialogue from the adults who love them. It’s hard to imagine a world where teens never smoke weed, but how about a world where fewer are anxious and depressed? A world where children don’t need an escape from their grief because the world is a better place. That’s not up to them. That is on us, the adults meant to be protecting them.
*Sol wanted to participate knowing this story focused primarily on young women and girls.
Thanks to Pero Šimić, Dasol Kim, Maria Sepulveda, Samantha Vaughn, Quinn Herbert, Joely Garcia, and Miyah Henderson.