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There's a big push to decriminalize marijuana. But is it safe for teens and young adults?

Marijuana is gaining acceptance. But experts warn that young people under 25 can experience negative effects. (Getty Images)
Marijuana is gaining acceptance. But experts warn that young people under 25 can experience negative effects. (Getty Images)

Attitudes toward marijuana in the U.S. are changing and, with them, so is the legal landscape — and questions about how all of these changes may impact teens and young adults. While marijuana use is still illegal on a federal level, it's been legalized or decriminalized in several states. Now, there is a push from several federal lawmakers to make marijuana legal or, at least, downgrade it from its current classication as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and peyote.

Given interest in marijuana among many teens and young adults, experts in the addiction and psychological spaces have concerns about making the drug more accessible. Here's what to know about the current legal landscape around marijuana and how it can impact young people.

Where do things stand right now?

Currently, marijuana is legal for recreational use in 24 states and the District of Columbia. A new scientific review obtained by the New York Times found that scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) make marijuana a Schedule III drug, which would put it in the same category as ketamine, testosterone and other drugs with a moderate-to-low risk of physical or psychological dependence. Several Democrats in the Senate also sent a letter to the DEA in late January, urging the agency to make marijuana a Schedule III drug.

But in Washington state, where marijuana has been legal for recreational use since 2012, officials are working to raise the age limit for high-potency cannabis from 21 to 25. House Bill 2320 notes that many of the marijuana products for sale in the state right now are much stronger than they were in 2012. It also specifically says the age limit should be raised “to prevent psychosis” and cites a slew of mental health risks to teens who use these products, including schizophrenia and “lifelong mental health consequences.”

How marijuana can impact young people

“One of the things that we have learned in the past few decades is that your brain is developing well into your 20s,” research scientist Dr. Ryan Sultan, director of Mental Health Informatics and of Integrative Psych at Columbia University in New York, tells Yahoo Life. “For the average person, that development continues to at least age 25. When we think about adulthood historically — age 16, 18 and 21 — it isn't based on anything scientific. It's just cultural decisions we've made.”

It's important during that time to support the brain's growth, Sultan says. “If this development process is interfered by substances and highly addictive ones like alcohol, nicotine and modern cannabis — which is much more potent than the cannabis my parents used — the likelihood that it affects your brain development is high,” he says.

Psychologist Michelle L. West, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at University of Colorado - Anschutz Medical Campus, tells Yahoo Life that it's important to consider all sides of marijuana use. “It is important to consider benefits and downsides of marijuana use and to be open to new information,” she says. “There is a lot that we don’t know about marijuana and the way that it can impact people, especially young people.”

West lists potential benefits as trying a new experience, enjoying time with friends and temporary stress reduction. “Downsides can include increased difficulties with focus or motivation, withdrawal from typically enjoyed activities, financial strain due to the expense of purchasing marijuana or exacerbation of certain mental health symptoms,” West says. “To the last point, there is evidence that cannabis use can increase the risk of developing psychosis among people who have vulnerability toward developing psychosis.” West published a scientific paper on this topic in December.

Psychosis, West points out, is trouble telling the difference between what is and isn't real. It can include strong thoughts like paranoia — thoughts about being harmed by people or something else — or hallucinations, which is seeing or hearing things that aren't there. “Psychosis experiences range in intensity, can be short or long in duration, are more common than people tend to think they are and can, for some people, cause a lot of distress and life disruption,” she says.

A Columbia University study published in late January also found that asthma is more common in high school students who use marijuana, compared to those who don't use the drug. Rates of asthma also increase the more students use the drug, the study found.

There is also an increased risk of addiction. “What we do know suggests that marijuana adversely affects memory and motivation, especially when used regularly and among young people whose brains are still developing,” Danielle M. Dick, psychologist and director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center, tells Yahoo Life. “This is particularly concerning because the ‘job’ of young people is to go to school and prepare for their futures, which requires memory and motivation.”

Young people with marijuana use problems are also some of the hardest to treat given that the drug impacts motivation. “It also leads to people not caring about the adverse effects they are experiencing,” Dick says.

Some parents seem to be more tolerant of marijuana use than alcohol, and experts say that's concerning. “With alcohol, you know how strong it is because there are laws surrounding packaging. So most parents would be far more concerned if their child drank a liter of vodka than a beer because vodka is far more potent, so they realize it’s more dangerous,” Dick says. “But with marijuana, it can be very hard to evaluate the strength of the drug. It’s actually a far stronger drug than most parents realize.”

So, what age is OK for marijuana use?

While many laws allow people to use marijuana at age 21, experts generally agree that the age limit should be 25 instead. “[That] is a much more appropriate cutoff,” Sultan says. “It's science-based, as opposed to the age 21 cutoff.”

Overall, West says that it's important for young people to be informed about marijuana. “Young people — and adults — tend to be very resourceful in figuring out how to do what they want to do, including using marijuana,” she says. “It is useful if young people can hear multiple perspectives and have an accurate understanding of the benefits and downsides of use, including from trusted people like family members.”

Still, Sultan recommends waiting until age 25. “There's no reason to use this when you're younger,” he says. “It will be available for you later.”