A Growing Concern: Are We Ready for Weed?

Is Canada’s Rollout for Marijuana Legalization in a State of Confusion?

While the Trudeau Liberals ready the nation for the legalization of marijuana, health experts are looking on in amazement. Why? Because not much has been done in the area of public education in relation to the weed rollout. The medical community is reminding legislators that they have an ethical responsibility to warn people – and youth in particular – that a mind-altering drug is about to become fair game for people 18 and over. This is extremely important in light of the scores of studies that demonstrate the adverse effects of marijuana on the developing brain of young people.

Marijuana: The teen drug of choice

The need to educate youth on the risks of marijuana use may be coming a little late in the game. Canada is just months away from legalization and cannabis use by young people is already a nationwide cause for concern. Dr. Amy Porath of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction has conducted extensive research into youth pot use. Her research confirms something most people already know: cannabis is the drug of choice for teens. Where Porath sheds additional light is in her assertion that Canadian youth cannabis use is among the highest in the world. She cites a 2016 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) that looked at youth marijuana use over a 30-day period. Canada ranked second among 40 countries (France finished first) with 13 per cent of Canadian youth having smoked weed within the focus period. There is also a WHO report from 2009 that has Canadian youth leading the developed world in terms of cannabis use in a survey of 29 countries.

Going deeper

When you dig deeper into the statistics, the breakdown brings the pot picture into more focus. According to some estimates, one in five Canadian youth have smoked weed within the last year. Statistics Canada reports that cannabis consumption increases through each year of high school (Grade 9, 10.3 per cent; Grade 10, 25.2 per cent; Grade 11, 35.1 per cent; Grade 12, 37.2 per cent).  Studies have also revealed that daily marijuana use is more common than daily alcohol use for senior high school students with five to six per cent admitting to smoking weed every day (as opposed to the two to three per cent who drink alcohol).

Building awareness

So the data makes it clear: Canadian youth are already smoking a great deal of marijuana. With the Cannabis Act (Bill C-45) ready to make recreational marijuana use legal for people 18 and over after July 1, 2018, authorities are starting to realize that public education needs to set its sights on informing people of the potential dangers of pot use. This is a rather late response to the government’s November 2016 blue ribbon panel that called for “…a robust and ongoing national public education campaign [that] requires proper funding and implementation as soon as possible, prior to legislation.” It wasn’t until the last budget that the government made a commitment to educating the public with the announcement of $9.6 million earmarked for an awareness campaign. The problem with the monetary pledge is that it is slated to be spent over five years. Marc Paris of Drug Free Kids Canada believes that the government should be spending $10 million a year on public awareness with a major part of the focus aimed at cannabis use and driving.

Myth: Marijuana helps you drive better

Paris, along with his counterparts at Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), refuse to wait for the government to get on board with building awareness. His organization has already put ads together to attack a common myth about smoking up and getting behind the wheel – that cannabis use leads to better driving. While this seems counter-intuitive to most reasonable people (how can a mind- altering substance that slows down your reflexes and impairs your judgement make you better at a task that requires ongoing decision making with quick reaction times?), many drug users have effectively spread this myth. A recent EKOS public opinion poll found that 25 per cent of Canadians admitted to driving after smoking marijuana. Another 30 per cent said they were passengers in a car driven by someone who had been smoking marijuana with that number shooting up to 42 per cent when the survey was broken down into people aged 19-24. Now safety advocates like Paris are trying to lead the charge in dispelling the myth and convincing people that smoking marijuana and driving is the same thing as drinking alcohol and driving. Put plainly: the two don’t mix and they never have! This message needs to be delivered to young drivers in particular.

Cannabis and the developing brain

While Drug Free Kids Canada, MADD and the CAA are doing their best to defeat cannabis impaired driving, the government is on the hook to deliver what they promise will be an in-your-face, evidence-based education campaign that targets youth with the truth: that marijuana is not harmless. Dr. Christina Grant, an adolescent medicine specialist and associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, warns, “There can be no doubt regarding the scientific literature that cannabis use prior to the mid-20s is associated with structural and functional harmful effects on the developing brain.” Why? Because the pre-frontal cortex of people under the age of 25 is still developing. This is the area of the brain responsible for reasoning and impulse control. Regular marijuana use (this could be daily or weekly depending on the individual) alters the brain’s chemistry and can increase the likelihood of psychotic episodes for many users by up to 40 per cent. This is why many health officials are asking for 25 to be the age requirement for people to legally use cannabis.

Myth: Marijuana is not addictive

Marijuana is also addictive (many users claim it is not addictive — yet another cannabis myth) because it is a mind and mood altering drug that taps into the brain’s reward system. Put simply: in many users, smoking marijuana brings pleasure. This causes the release of dopamine into the user’s system. Dopamine is a chemical and neurotransmitter that tells the user, “This is good, do it again.” This message turns into a craving and a desire to repeat the experience. According to Victoria L. Creighton, the Clinical Director of the youth addiction focused Pine River Institute, “Most… teens believed that marijuana was a benign substance, “just not a big deal” until they were too far down the road… We know from our experience that early and frequent use of cannabis has a number of negative consequences for youth, specifically around emotional maturity.”

A government controlled market

So this is what the government is up against as they prepare to launch a campaign to make youth more aware of the effects of marijuana use in a legalized pot Canada. From Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s perspective, the stats say that kids are already smoking weed and that legalizing cannabis should make use of the drug a safer prospect. He says, “We know that, as it stands now, underage Canadians have easier access to marijuana than just about any other country in the world.”  Trudeau believes that legalizing weed will allow the government to control the quality and quantity of cannabis on the market. He hopes to cut the legs out from under the drug dealers and make marijuana sales and distribution a government domain. In fact, the Liberals are so relaxed about legalization that they are even decriminalizing possession: youth (12+) can possess up to five grams and adults (18+) can possess up to 30 grams without being charged with a drug offence.

In the meantime, the public awareness campaign should start in the spring of 2018. This is very late according to many critics. The Liberals knew legalization was coming after they were elected in the fall of 2015. Perhaps they were counting on groups like Drug Free Kids Canada to step up the public education campaign on their behalf. Either way, the government has to take responsibility for a marijuana rollout that has, thus far, provided limited focus on youth education.

Nonetheless, the nation is just months away from legalization. The government is hoping that an innovative marketing company wins the public education tender and delivers programming that touches on key themes dealing with the risks of cannabis use and the effects of cannabis on the developing brain. This could be accomplished through advertising, concerts or festivals aimed directly at influencing youth to know what they are getting into when they choose to smoke weed.

By: Sean Dolan

Additional information:

Cannabis slang – marijuana, bud, blunt, chronic, dab, dope, ganja, green, hash, herb, joint, loud, Mary Jane, mj, pot, reefer, shatter, skunk, smoke, trees, wax, weed. 

Short term effects of pot use

  • feeling happy, relaxed
  • increased sociability
  • heightened sensations
  • problems with memory and learning
  • distorted perception, impaired thinking
  • paranoia
  • body tremors, loss of motor control, increased heart rate, panic attacks

Long term effects of pot use

  • changes in thoughts, feelings and behaviours 
  • regular pot use by youth can increase the likelihood of psychosis or psychotic episodes by up to 40 per cent
  • If a person comes from a family with a history of mental illness, marijuana can trigger an increase in things like anxiety and depression — and even schizophrenia  -regular use is linked with poor grades and a decrease in cognitive ability
  • regular use by youth can restrict or impair the development of the pre-fontal cortex (the part of the brain dealing with impulse control, working memory, planning, problem solving, and emotional regulation)

(Source: Drug Free Kids Canada)