Cannabis use harms minds of young people

Legal age for cannabis use should be higher, not lower
Dr. Gail Beck, The Province,  21 Apr 2017
  Every day in the youth program at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, my colleagues and I see young people whose illnesses are complicated by the use and abuse of cannabis or a dependence on this drug. We provide these youths and their families with information on the effect of pot on the developing brain. We are often able to convince young people to decrease their marijuana consumption or, in many cases, to stop using it.

Unfortunately, legislators may not be as aware of the risks of cannabis on the developing brain as mental health professionals are. ....click "Read More" below to continue....

There are three categories of concern with respect to cannabis use by youth and their health. First, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are concerned about the impact of marijuana on brain development. Second, there is a correlation between marijuana use and the onset of psychotic illnesses. Finally, there may be particular risks related to adolescents who are driving under the influence of cannabis.

There is good evidence that marijuana use can have an effect on the developing brain, which can continue into a person’s mid-20s. Health professionals had hoped that the legal age for marijuana use might be 25, to reduce these impacts. Most of us realize that marijuana use can impair concentration and cause a deterioration in such cognitive tasks as remembering, problem-solving and decision-making. These effects will reverse in adults a few weeks after discontinuing marijuana. In youth under 25, however, this isn’t the case.

These difficulties often result in long-term functional deterioration. Young people may even find their academic achievement deteriorates at a time in their lives when they can least manage this. From the age of 18 until 25, a young person is finishing high school, beginning post-secondary education and starting a career. Most of us call upon all our mental resources during this period and we don’t need cannabis clouding our judgment.

A second concern is related to the development of mental illnesses, particularly psychotic illnesses. Research has demonstrated a correlation between marijuana use and the onset of anxiety disorders, depression and psychotic disorders in youth with a predisposition to these conditions because of family history. Mental health symptoms are also a concern in acute, toxic, dose-related episodes of intoxication, including anxiety, depression, paranoia and psychotic episodes.

In our youth psychiatry program, we educate our patients and their families about this research. We have found that this is necessary since so many Canadians believe that marijuana is relatively harmless compared with other substances or alcohol. It’s for this reason that public health and mental health professionals have requested that a robust education plan accompany the implementation of marijuana legislation.

Finally, we must remember that even when they’re not intoxicated, youth — especially young men — are implicated in more motor-vehicle accidents than any other age group. Marijuana intoxication is as dangerous as other intoxication and has been linked to an increased rate of traffic accidents. This link was demonstrated in an increased rate of motor vehicle accidents in Colorado since the legalization of marijuana there.

Mental health professionals had hoped that the federal government would keep public health concerns in the forefront as they introduced marijuana legalization. As a physician and parent, I am inclined to be protective where the evidence merits it. But I am also realistic. I know that young Canadians use twice as much marijuana as their counterparts in other similar countries. I had hoped that this legislation would regulate marijuana, so that there could be access to safe amounts only, keeping in mind the mental health of young Canadians.

Having had an opportunity to consider the federal plan to legalize marijuana, health professionals will now take our concerns to provincial governments. Since the cost of negative outcomes will be borne provincially, perhaps these legislators will be more cautious with age restrictions.

More importantly, perhaps health professionals will be able to convince young Canadians and those who care for them of the health risks of marijuana, in much the same way as we are able to convince my patients and their families. That would be the best prevention.

Dr. Gail Beck is clinical director of the youth psychiatry program at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. This piece first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.


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