Legal pot poses risks too, warns U of S researcher

A University of Saskatchewan researcher thinks there is something important missing in the public dialogue leading up to the legalization of marijuana in Canada.

Study looks at who is using marijuana, and how often

A University of Saskatchewan researcher worries that the public discussion around the legalization of marijuana is too focused and ignores the potential health risks for young people. (David Donnelly/CBC)

A University of Saskatchewan researcher thinks there is something important missing in the public dialogue leading up to the legalization of marijuana in Canada.

Michael Szafron is worried the risks are being glossed over.   

You have to have a persistent, honest campaign.- Michael Szafron  

"It may look safe and that there are no downsides to using it," he told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

Szafron, an assistant professor at the U of S School of Public Health, recently served as the principal investigator on a research project to explore some of the risk factors. He is presenting his findings in a speech on the Saskatoon campus Tuesday.

Assistant professor Michael Szafron believes young people should have all the information they need to make decisions about whether to use marijuana. (University of Saskatchewan)

Who, and how much?

Szafron and his students set out to answer questions about marijuana use before legalization.  

"What are the demographics, and what are the patterns of usage?"  

They learned that a majority of the people who have tried and continue to use marijuana tend to be below the age of 25. That's a big concern for Szafron.  

"It is this very group that is susceptible to some negative long-term side effects, such as cognitive impairments and severe mental health issues, including long-term depression, possibly bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia."

Szafron argues that government, society and even the university have a responsibility now to educate young people about the risks and potential negative side effects of using marijuana. He said that young people deserve to know all the facts.

"They may have chosen not to use marijuana had they have known they were at risk of these things."

A ban will not work

It's not that Szafron is a marijuana prohibitionist. He doesn't believe that a ban would work and suggested that local governments and university campuses will do their best to find safe, controlled places for people to use marijuana in the same way that they regulate alcohol and tobacco use.

Still, he said, it is time to stop talking solely about the potential positive side effects of marijuana use and include credible scientific information about the risks.  

And, Szafron suggested, that public health campaign must be done carefully, with the message coming from young people who themselves are struggling with the consequences of marijuana use.

 "You have to have a persistent, honest campaign."

with files from Saskatoon Morning