You may have noticed, especially if you have teenagers in the house, that physical health has become an obsession for today’s youths? Health clubs are full of young people jogging energetically and pumping iron, drinking protein concoctions or vegetable mixtures in strange shades of green. Every exercise machine stands in front of a mirror so that the effects of all this effort can be fully appreciated, a spur to continued exertion. They do look fabulous. 

You will also notice that, leaving the gym, they never have a smoke. Nowadays, smoking a cigarette comes with all the guilty thrill of the most sordid vice. Eating simple sugars and sweets is considered almost as bad. Interestingly, it is this very health conscious demographic that thinks of marijuana as not just “OK for you,” but even beneficial. 

A poll conducted last year by WSJ/NBC asked 1,000 people selected at random: “Which is worse for your health: marijuana or sugar?” Fifty-two percent of respondents answered sugar. That is an amazing statistic. Sugar, in one of its many forms, is actually a nutritional requirement for life. Marijuana is a non essential, mood-altering and addictive substance, like alcohol and nicotine. 

Yet, recreational use of marijuana is now legal in several states, and residents of California will be voting on a measure to legalize recreational pot this November. This reflects the fact that oh-so-many people, as the poll shows, believe marijuana is less harmful than sugar, or, in other words, not harmful at all.

So does the scientific establishment back public opinion on marijuana? It turns out that medical opinion is going steadily in the other direction. New studies are confirming what researchers and physicians have suspected for some time: that smoking or eating marijuana has some very dangerous side effects, especially in adolescents and young adults.

The most concerning and the one that has been most closely studied is its effect on IQ. The longest running research study on the subject was conducted in New Zealand and measured changes in IQ over the years in teenagers who smoked pot regularly (at least once a week). They found an astounding average drop of eight IQ points in their subjects. Just to put that in perspective, imagine a young woman of average intelligence (with an IQ of 95) who loses enough intelligence to fall into the lower IQ bracket by the time she is 21. Tasks that were once easy become difficult, and professional goals that were easily attainable become harder or impossible to achieve. 

A more recent study by the American Psychological Association found an average drop of six IQ points in teens who smoke once a week. They also point out that many teens smoke more often than that, with greater expected harm. The researchers also found that their test subjects suffered other kinds of neuro-cognitive damage, such as poor attention and poor memory. Teen psychosis and brain damage have been scientifically linked to pot use as well. On the other hand, science tells us the downside of sugar for a non-diabetic is dental cavities. Oh, and you will gain weight if you overindulge. 

Where is this disconnect between public opinion and scientific opinion coming from? Part of it is the economic incentive to legalize weed. Governments are looking greedily at huge tax revenues from the sale of pot, and communities are expecting a boost from weed tourism. Mom-and-pop pot farmers are excited about legalization, as are large corporations that envision giant agricultural operations in the near future. 

In California, local and state governments expect to save more than $100 million when they stop enforcing marijuana-related laws, and they expect tax revenues to exceed $1 billion. That’s a lot of incentive to make marijuana seem benign. The medical marijuana lobby contributes to this process, helping to make hazy connections between the usefulness of marijuana in calming nausea and as a way to self-manage teenage anxiety.  

While legalization only applies to adults over 21, states that have legalized marijuana have seen a significant increase in its use by teenagers and even younger children. This is natural, since young people assume that it must be harmless if it’s legal for adults. The American College of Pediatrics is against the legalization of recreational pot because it “is addicting, has adverse effects upon the adolescent brain, is a risk for both cardio-respiratory disease and testicular cancer, and is associated with both psychiatric illness and negative social outcomes.” 

Legalizing the drug, even in a few states, gives teenagers the happy security of knowing what they always suspected: mom and dad are clueless. If pot is no big deal for an 18-year-old in Colorado, of course it can’t be any big deal for a 14-year-old in California. The parental units are, like always, operating in some alternate universe

You might be able to tell from my writing that three of my children are teenagers. I understand their mindset all too well. It’s my husband’s and my job to protect them as best we can from the wackiness of the culture we live in, piloting them (hopefully) safely through their teen years to the safer waters of adulthood. We keep an eagle eye trained on them for the telltale red eyes and laziness of the pot smoker. 

So far so good. They do spend a lot of time in the gym, and there’s a big jar of protein powder in the pantry. But that’s OK — youth is the time to look fabulous. 

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie writes and speaks in both Spanish and English about Catholicism, family life and being a faithful Christian in the public square. She practices radiology in the Miami area, where she lives with her husband and five children.