Lawyer worried his 22-year-old son's marijuana use will cause problems

Issue February 2006

Q: I am worried about my 22-year-old son, who, I'm fairly certain, smokes "weed" every day. At times, he has alluded to a sense that he is dependent on it, but he also doesn't seem too concerned about it. He did OK in college but has not developed a career plan. Although he's a good kid and hasn't gotten into any kind of trouble, I'm concerned that he'll still be living in our house a year or two from now, and turn into a real pothead. I can't say I never used marijuana in my youth, but now, as a mature man with a certain reputation as an attorney, I am not especially comfortable having it in the house, and I worry about my son's future.

A: As you probably know, people with addictive behaviors often deny, minimize, rationalize or justify their behavior and/or its consequences, and instead, blame it/them on other people, circumstances or things. A defining characteristic of addiction is the repetition of the behavior despite predictable negative consequences. Because the negative consequences of marijuana (other than legal) may be more subtle than those for other substances, motivation for acknowledging a problem and taking remedial action may be very low. For example, loss of job, marriage, freedom or health may not hang so clearly in the balance as in the case of dependence on alcohol or narcotics.

Whether or not your son is "addicted" to marijuana, a pattern of daily use (in a drug with a long half-life) certainly suggests that he is usually, to some extent, "under the influence." Some people can become quite paranoid or even psychotic with enough THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) in their systems, but the most common consequence is known as "Amotivational Syndrome," i.e., the person shows a certain apathy and lack of drive. Many frequent marijuana users also seem slow to mature, perhaps because of an impaired capacity to learn from experience. Counselors often describe cannabis addicts who are, say, in their 30s, as having the personalities and sophistication of teenagers.

Reliable research findings are limited, but some studies indicate other concerns as well. A study based at McLean Hospital and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked heavy marijuana use to impaired attention, decision-making and verbal fluency, suggesting lasting effects on structures in the brain stem and prefrontal areas. Another peer-reviewed journal article found similar effects in children whose mothers had smoked marijuana during pregnancy. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cannabis exposure is at least tentatively connected with increased risk of respiratory disease, poor immune system functioning, impaired memory/learning, impaired academic and job performance and cancer of the head, neck and lungs. In contrast to alcoholics, for example, where dramatic consequences such as drunk driving arrests, erratic job performance, grossly inappropriate behavior, etc., many of these consequences related to marijuana dependence might not emerge or be noticed for many years.

You did not indicate the extent to which you may have discussed your concerns with your son. LCL may be of some assistance here. We could offer you some coaching as to how to best pursue such a discussion with your son, or could meet with you and your son together to facilitate such a conversation. Alternatively, we could meet with your son (since he is a family member of a lawyer), who may or may not be concerned about his marijuana use, but may also have misgivings about his lack of direction. If he is interested, we could then refer him to a therapist or counselor, who could, over time, also evaluate with him the role and impact of his drug use.