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Teens and Marijuana: What are the Potential Risks?

Research is showing that the teenage brain is more susceptible to the potential negative effects of marijuana than is the adult brain.

Dean Nicholson

In last year's election, all the political parties said they wanted to limit teens' access to marijuana and protect them from marijuana's risks.

There was good reason for the parties to say this:  Canadian youth have some of the highest rates of marijuana use in the world.  Furthermore, ongoing research is showing that the teenage brain is more susceptible to the potential negative effects of marijuana than is the adult brain.

In the East Kootenay 31% of youth in Grades 7 to 12 say they have tried marijuana in their lifetime, with 25% of youth saying they have used in the past year.  Of kids who do use 60% say they use less than once a week, but 25% say they use three days a week or more.  That means that well over 300 youth in our region are using marijuana at what researchers would call a heavy rate of use.

Why is this important?  Because in 2015 the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse released "The Effects of Cannabis Use During Adolescence," which summarized the current research on the risks of marijuana use for teens.  One of the key points in the paper was that, because teenage brains are going through a critical period of growth and development, they are more susceptible to the impact of substances, with marijuana being particularly potent on the developing brain.  Marijuana has been shown to change the physical development of teenage brains, particularly those areas involved in emotional and cognitive performance.

Further, the learning that happens during adolescence tends to get learned 'deeper' and be more long-lasting than the learning that happens later in adulthood.  Thus, the physical changes and the deep behavioural patterning that can occur in teens' brains when they use marijuana can have much more impact than they would on the adult brain.

One of the recommendations was for teens who were considering using marijuana was to delay use until they were older.  Youth who start using at 19 are at less risk than youth who start at 15.  Youth who start using at age 12 or 13 have even higher levels of risk.  The earlier teens start using marijuana the more strongly this is connected to marijuana addiction, as well as emotional and mental health problems, and school and employment problems.  In the East Kootenay the average age for first trying marijuana is just under 14 years old.

The other key recommendation was that if youth are choosing to use marijuana, they should not use in a regular or heavy way.  Most researchers define heavy use as being akin to 'three days a week or more', with some research even saying once a week is enough to increase the risks.   So in our area we have a lot of kids who are starting to use marijuana at a young age and a lot of kids who are using in a heavy way.  Both of these significantly increase the negative risks known to be associated with marijuana.

Legalizing marijuana won't make these behaviours go away.  What will help is open and accurate discussions about the risks, so that our youth can make choices based on good information, rather than on hype.

For more information about marijuana please contact your local East Kootenay Addiction Services office.

Dean Nicholson is Executive Director, East Kootenay Addiction Services Society

East Kootenay Addiction Services Society is one of many Leadership Table Partners with Safe Communities Cranbrook.