Kids and cannabis

Cannabis and kids is a big research topic, especially since the drug’s legalization here last fall.

A new Health Canada study reports that kids, as young as 13, are twice as likely to smoke weed than cigarettes.

Although both substances are illegal for those underage, the 13- and 14-year-old high school students report that 7% of them had tried pot at least once, while 8% said they used occasionally. tobacco use came in at 4%.

Another recent survey by Health Canada reports an upswing in cannabis use among high school students — but prior to legalization. The study’s lead author Dr. Alexandra Zuckerman reports that public perception began shifting in 2014, likely due to lots of cannabis discussion and widespread medical cannabis use.

“Before that, youth cannabis use was declining. These changing social norms may have contributed to rising youth use,” reports Zuckerman, a researcher with the Public Health Agency of Canada. Her ongoing study has been tracking use by students in grades 9 to 12 since 2012.

Dr. Jason Busse.

Changing attitudes affect teens, and a decrease in tobacco use doesn’t surprise experts. The concerted education campaign on the health consequences of tobacco use appears to have been effective in curbing use among adults and youth, says Dr. Jason Busse.

“Cannabis has not been legal for recreational use until quite recently, and so I suspect there has been less public education on the associated harms.”

Experts agree it’s too early to tell if more kids are smoking pot since it was legalized. The evidence associating greater use of cannabis among youth after legalization generally comes from U.S., and it’s mixed, says Busse, associate director of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University.

“I do think that legalizing cannabis for non-medicinal use will reduce stigma and possibly result in greater use among youth as a result… but the increase may be modest and it remains to be seen if increased use will continue, stabilize or decline back to baseline (pre-legalization) after an initial increase,” says Busse.

University of Waterloo professor Dr. David Hammond says in the U.S., where states, such as Colorado and Washington, began legalizing non-medical cannabis in 2012, prevalence of cannabis use among youth has remained stable after legalization.

Dr. David Hammond.

New stats are pending: The Canadian Association for Mental Health will soon be releasing the CAMH Ontario Student Drug Use and Mental Health Survey for 2019. In 2017, their survey data indicated that 19% of youth use cannabis. Twenty years ago, pot use was at 28%, and smoking cigarettes dropped from nearly 30% to 7% in 2017.

Although many youth may believe that legalization of marijuana signals that it’s harmless, that’s far from the truth.

According to the American College of Pediatricians: “Marijuana is addicting, has adverse effects upon the adolescent brain, is a risk for both cardio-respiratory disease and testicular cancer, and is associated with both psychiatric illness and negative social outcomes.”

It messes with brains and the longer kids delay using it the better.

“Early, frequent use of cannabis is one of the best predictors of longer term health effects and problematic use,” says Hammond, who teaches at Waterloo’s School of Public Health and Health Systems. “Although many youth in Canada try cannabis, daily or almost daily, use among young people is an important warning sign for parents or health professionals.”

Meanwhile, legalization has generated considerable discussion about cannabis use and that’s a good thing, says Hammond. Federal and provincial governments now have a mandate to educate people about cannabis. Several provinces are required to invest revenues into cannabis research and public education.

“The Cannabis Act also requires mandatory health warnings on important topics, including addiction, mental health, and use during pregnancy. Greater public education is important because cannabis is a substance for which many overestimate the health effects and many others underestimate the health effects.”

Gummy bears and lollipops

Cannabis in shapes that appeal to kids, such as gummy bears, cookies and lollipops, will be legal come mid-December. Cannabis products, such as edibles and beverages, were not included when cannabis leaves, oil and seeds were legalized last year.

“I do have concerns when psychoactive substances are packaged to look like candies, cookies or brownies — all of which are tempting targets for children and can lead to cannabis poisoning,” says Dr. Jason Busse, of

In addition, effects of edibles are not felt for an hour or more, says Busse, so it’s easy to see even users who know they are consuming cannabis taking on much more THC than intended, resulting in an overdose. “You can’t fatally overdose on cannabis, but consuming high amounts of THC can lead to sufficiently distressing symptoms, for example, hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks, that many would seek emergency care.”


Youth are vaping more than ever in Canada and the U.S.

Dr. David Hammond attributes it to a new generation of e-cigarettes with higher levels of nicotine. His research at the University of Waterloo reports an 8% increase in vaping and smoking in Canada and 5% in the U.S. among youth aged 16 to 19 between 2017 and 2018.

According to Hammond, a professor at the University of Waterloo, the JUUL brand of vaping device rose in popularity with youth, likely because of its high nicotine concentration delivery of up to 50 mg. Other devices deliver between 3 mg and 24 mg.

While E-cigarettes have the potential to help adult smokers to quit, they also have the potential to create a new generation of nicotine users, says Hammond. Urgent action to reduce youth vaping is needed.

The study also found that smoking rates in Canada may have increased between 2017 and 2018. “If the current findings are replicated in other studies, the progress in reducing youth smoking may be under threat.”


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