November 18, 2021

Cannabis use and young people

mother with teenaged son

In the media, online and in everyday conversations we’re regularly exposed to conflicting messages about cannabis use.

As a parent, making sense of these different messages can be confusing.

Here we provide some useful information to help you understand why young people might try cannabis and provide some tips to support you to have open conversations about cannabis (and other drug) use with your young person.

Why do young people take drugs?

We know the brain is still developing during adolescence and this ongoing development may promote risk-taking, including drug use.1

We also know some young people take alcohol and other drugs for a range of other reasons:

  • to experiment – adolescence is a time of curiosity, experimentation and risk-taking
  • to fit in – some teens use drugs to overcome insecurities and low self-esteem, or to feel like they belong or fit in to friendship groups and social circles
  • to feel good – many young people take drugs to get high, to experience feelings of pleasure and euphoria, and to relax
  • to feel better – some teens take drugs as a form of self-medication, to relieve stress, forget or replace negative feelings, depression or social anxiety.2

Alcohol, tobacco and cannabis are the most common drugs used by young people, and cannabis is often the first illicit drug they try.3

In Australia, the age-group most likely to use cannabis is 18 to 24-year-olds. Cannabis use by 14 to 17-year-olds is less common, with around 16% having tried cannabis at least once.3

Some young people will try cannabis a few times and stop, others will continue to use it occasionally without any significant issues.4

However, even occasional cannabis use can reduce concentration and attention, and affect memory capacity.5

For some young people, cannabis use can also lead to dependency.6 But, this is much less common7-9 and is influenced by a range of factors including genetics, the person’s environment and their age.10-12 Read more on understanding drug and alcohol addiction (dependence).

Although recreational cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in the world, most people who use it don’t go on to use other illicit drugs.10, 11

For more information, see why people use alcohol and other drugs.

How do I know if my young person uses cannabis regularly?

If your young person only uses cannabis every now and then, it might be hard to notice any signs.

If they are using cannabis frequently, you may notice some behaviour changes - however, these behaviours can be difficult to separate from common teenage behaviours!

Some of these signs can be subtle and easy to miss; others may be more obvious. They might include:

  • changes in friendship group or problems with friends
  • changes in mood, appetite or sleeping patterns
  • loss of interest in sports or activities they once enjoyed
  • emotional distancing or withdrawal from family
  • poor performance at school
  • secretive behaviour or evasiveness.12, 13

If your young person is showing some of these behaviours and cannabis is not involved, they might still need some support. Getting in touch with a youth support service like headspace can be a good first step.

How do I talk with my child about cannabis use?

If you think your child is using cannabis, having an open and honest discussion about it can build feelings of trust and respect and help you understand what’s going on for them.14

Try these tips for an effective conversation:

  • Get educated and find out the facts about cannabis so you can answer questions and provide your young person with factual information, including how they can reduce risk and harms if they do use cannabis. See our Cannabis DrugFacts page.
  • Pick a good time/place to talk - a place where your young person feels comfortable and you won’t be interrupted. Perhaps go for a walk and talk.
  • Express your concerns without being confrontational or seeming judgemental.
  • Listen to your young person so they feel respected, valued, cared for and supported.
  • Be curious and make sure it’s a two-way conversation – ask questions like “what do you like about using cannabis?” and “what don’t you like about using cannabis?”. Exploring their reasons for using cannabis can help you identify if there are any underlying issues they need support with.
  • Keep the conversation door open by letting them know you are available to talk with them anytime. See Talking about drugs
  • Offer options if they don’t want to talk to you – is there a sibling, aunt or uncle or close family friend they might prefer to connect with or, if they decide they want more help, you can explore options for counselling or other supports.15, 16
  • Refer to Positive Choices for further information about starting the conversation.

Starting conversations about alcohol and drug use when your children are young creates a safe and non-judgemental space where they can continue to come for support and advice. Revisiting these discussions as your child’s understanding continues to develop can help them make informed choices in the future.

  1. Winters KC, Arria A. Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs. Prev Res. 2011;18(2):21-4.
  2. National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Why do adolescents take drugs? 2014 [17.11.2021].
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia. 2021.
  4. Australian Institute of Health Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.
  5. Crean R, Crane N, Mason B. An Evidence-Based Review of Acute and Long-Term Effects of Cannabis Use on Executive Cognitive Functions. Journal of Adddiction Medicine. 2011;5(1):1-8.
  6. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia 2018–19. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.
  7. Leung J, Chan GCK, Hides L, Hall WD. What is the prevalence and risk of cannabis use disorders among people who use cannabis? a systematic review and meta-analysis. Addictive Behaviors [Internet]. 2020 [29.10.2021]; 109:[106479 p.].
  8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.
  9. Guerin N, White V. ASSAD 2017 Statistics & Trends: Australian Secondary Students’ Use of Tobacco, Alcohol, Over-the-counter Drugs, and Illicit Substances. Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer: Cancer Council Victoria; 2020.
  10. Drug Policy Alliance. Debunking the "Gateway" Myth New York, NY2017 [
  11. Institute of Medicine. In: Joy JE, Watson SJ, Jr., Benson JA, Jr., editors. Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US) 1999.
  12. Positive Choices. How can I tell if someone is using drugs? 2021 [1.11.2021].
  13. lifeline. What is substance misuse? [cited 2021 September 13].
  14. Positive Choices. Starting the conversation when you are concerned about drug and alcohol use [17.11.2021].
  15. Positive Choices. Talking to a young person about alcohol and other drugs 2021 [26.08.2021].
  16. Drug Free Kids Canada. Tips for talking about substance use with your teen [17.11.2021].

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