When mothers use cannabis during the first 12 years of their child’s life, their marijuana-using children are more likely to start at an earlier age than children of non-using mothers, according to a new study. This study is the first to create a link amid maternal cannabis use during a child’s lifetime and earlier initiation in a nationally-representative, longitudinal cohort, and examine the role of race, gender, and other social environmental factors.

Early beginning is one of the strongest forecasters of the likelihood of experiencing health consequences from cannabis use. In a shifting regulatory environment in which we expect adult cannabis use to become more normative, increasing a deeper and more nuanced understanding of social risk issues for early initiation is a serious step in intervention design and delivery. Incorporating maternal marijuana use into our understanding of the significant risk factors for timely initiation may aid us better identify at-risk youth for more personalized or intensive prevention strategies.

Even though cannabis is usually thought to be less harmful compared with other drugs of abuse, the probability of experiencing health consequences related with cannabis use is strongly linked to age at start, such that those who initiate earlier are at much greater risk. Undesirable consequences may be particularly marked for children and teenagers during these developmentally critical ages. Child and adolescent marijuana use is associated with impairments in attention, concentration, decision-making and working memory, and augmented impulsivity, which may continue for weeks after use, with evidence that some cognitive effects, including reductions in IQ, may linger into adulthood. Amid marijuana users, earlier initiation is related with increased risk of anxiety and depressive disorders.

The United States is presently experiencing a sea change surrounding cannabis. This cultural shift is expected to result in rises in the prevalence, frequency, visibility, and/or acceptability of adult marijuana use. Accepting the impact of parent use on early marijuana initiation is a central step in expecting the ways in which social environmental variations may alter the disease burden associated with cannabis in the US.

The results indicate that children of cannabis-using parents may be a significant subgroup for identification and early, evidence-based intervention by pediatricians and adolescent healthcare providers. Although future research on the mechanisms underpinning this connection is essential before more precise recommendations can be made, cannabis prescribers and other physicians may ponder educating cannabis-using parents about early cannabis initiation and equipping them with evidence-based preventive strategies to delay marijuana use in their children. Further research may seek to comprehend best practices for preventing early initiation, such as lessening or pausing use, reducing the visibility of use until children are older, and providing training, tools, and resources to aid address these issues.