Your Health

Talking to your kids about cannabis

Photo of a mother talking to a teenage boy.
Photo of Dr. Joss Reimer. DR. JOSS REIMER
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 21, 2018
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High Alert: What you need to know about cannabis.

After years of discussion, Canada is finally set to legalize the use of cannabis on Oct. 17. 

From a public health perspective this is mostly a good thing, because it will help alleviate some of the legal, social and health problems that are often associated with the use of this drug.

Most importantly, legalization will eliminate criminal sanctions for simple possession which can have a much larger health impact than occasional cannabis use. It also means that buyers will have access to a safer product. Provincially regulated cannabis won’t be mixed with other drugs and the strength of the drug will be controlled.

However, supporting the legalization of cannabis is not the same as endorsing its use. Ask any public health official if legalization means that cannabis is now “safe” to use, and the answer – just like it is for tobacco and alcohol – will be unequivocally no.

This is particularly true when it comes to kids and teens.

Research shows that that young people between the ages of 10 and 19 who use cannabis are at increased risk for serious health consequences, including impaired brain development and mental health issues.

This is largely because cannabis contains a psychoactive ingredient called tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. This chemical is known to interfere with the development of a person’s brain, which is not fully formed until the age of 25.

As a result, young people who frequently (daily or almost daily) use cannabis can suffer permanent damage to the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain that controls judgment, memory and ability to think through complex issues. In some cases, frequent users have developed learning disabilities as well as serious mental illnesses such as psychosis and schizophrenia.

Accidental ingestion of cannabis is also a problem, particularly among children between the ages of one and five. Statistics from Washington and Colorado, which both recently legalized cannabis, show that the number of toddlers and young children being admitted to emergency departments for the accidental consumption of cannabis edibles, like candy or Nutella-like spread, has risen dramatically over the last few years.

Given these facts, it’s no surprise that public health officials are supporting efforts to reduce the risks associated with cannabis use.

For example, Manitoba has set the legal age for purchasing cannabis at 19. This makes sense from a public health perspective. At this age, young people are considered adults, capable of making important decisions. They can drive a car, vote and decide whether to use other legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. While public health officials recognize that anyone under 19 will probably be able to get their hands on cannabis after the new law comes into effect, we have learned from alcohol that setting higher age limits appears to discourage younger people from using. Setting the age at 19 is also helpful in reducing black market activity, since young adults are the largest group of cannabis consumers. While we don’t want young people to experience the negative consequences of THC, we do want to make sure that the largest group of consumers will have access to the safest possible product.

We are also encouraging adults and guardians to educate themselves about the risks and benefits of cannabis and talk to their kids about them. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to draw on. 

Start with Manitoba Health’s website at www.manitoba.ca/health/cannabis. It features a wide range of information, including sections on myths about cannabis, cannabis and pregnancy, and the risks of long-term use. It also has a link to the Cannabis Talk Kit, produced by Drug Free Kids Canada. For Indigenous communities, check out the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation’s document on legalized cannabis available at www.thunderbirdpf.org/legalizing-cannabis/.

In addition, Health Canada has posted some suggestions to keep in mind when talking to your teens about drugs. Tips include:  

  • Think first. Act second. Try to stay clear and focused and don't get too emotional.
  • Talk regularly and talk often. Many “mini-conversations” about drugs are better than long boring lectures. Provide your teen with information that is meaningful and balanced, without emotion or drama so that he or she feels empowered to make healthy choices about drugs.
  • Help your teen develop sound reasoning skills and encourage conversations and the open exchange of ideas and feelings.

For more information, visit www.canada.ca and search: communication tips for parents or see www.manitoba.ca/cannabis.

Dr. Joss Reimer is a medical officer of health and the medical lead for cannabis in public health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, September 21, 2018.

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