Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s healthy, especially when it comes to cannabis and the developing brain. There’s a common misconception that because cannabis is “natural” — and legal — it’s also somehow safe. Recent studies show that there’s a growing number of people who aren’t aware of the risks and long-term consequences of using cannabis, of which there can be many.
Unfortunately, one of the groups most susceptible to lasting damage from cannabis use is also the demographic that uses it the most — adolescents. With legalization in Canada, it’s never been more important to educate adolescents that natural and legal do not mean healthy or safe.
Cannabis use is on the rise in Canada
Canadian adolescents have the highest rate of cannabis use in the developed world. For example, Canadian youth ranked first for cannabis use among 43 countries and regions across Europe and North America. One-third of Canadian youth (regardless of gender) tried cannabis at least once by age 15. Colorado, where cannabis was legalized in January 2014, has recently reported one of the highest state prevalences for cannabis use in adolescents, while other states experienced a decline in use during the same period.
Studies show that when perception of risk associated with cannabis drops, use of the drug rises quickly. In Canada, the perceived dangers of cannabis have been declining over the last decade. In 2014, less than 40% of high school seniors said they believed regular cannabis use was risky, the lowest that number has been since the 1970s.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, cannabis use among Canadian adolescents has been on the rise over the past few decades. Based on the Canadian Community Health Survey, use by Canadians ages 15 years and older almost doubled between 1985 and 2015. There’s also a sizeable portion of the nation’s youth who use cannabis on a frequent basis. According to a recent study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 10% of grade 12 students smoke cannabis every day.
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Effects of cannabis on the adolescent brain
The brain continues to develop until the age of 25 or 26. During this period of neurodevelopment, the brain is thought to be particularly sensitive to damage from drug exposure, making adolescents uniquely susceptible to lasting damage from cannabis use.
The last region of the brain to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical to planning and judgment. Regular cannabis use during the developmental period has been shown to impair this section of the brain and its functions, such as attention, memory, motor coordination, learning and decision-making.
Numerous studies associate regular cannabis use with a bleak set of life outcomes including poor academic performance, increased welfare dependence, greater unemployment, addiction and lower life satisfaction and achievement.
Cannabis use and mental health
Being a teenager can be challenging and research shows that young Canadians admit to turning to cannabis to cope and self-medicate. Accessing cannabis can be easier for teenagers suffering from anxiety or depression than seeking help. According to a study by Lancet Psychiatry, nearly every high school student knows of someone who smokes and about 60% know where these smokers get their cannabis from. However, according to Dr. Wei-Yi Song, president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA), regular cannabis use can actually “increase the risk of developing a primary psychotic disorder as well as other mental health issues such as depression in those who are already vulnerable to these disorders.”
Research has also indicated that frequent use of cannabis at an early age can be a contributing factor to the cause of psychosis, and depending on the dosage or frequency of consumption, schizophrenia can emerge.
What's the solution?
If we want to see a decline in adolescent cannabis use, schools, parents and health care providers all have a responsibility to communicate the risks associated with cannabisa. Speaking to your children early and often about the hazards of marijuana is key to creating awareness. Ask about their friends and whether they are using marijuana, and then explore your child’s beliefs about it and whether they would use it if offered.
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