How to talk with your kids about cannabis use after legalization

Talking to kids about drugs may get a little foggier when adults are legally allowed to consume cannabis starting next summer.

'The earlier you start [using] the more likely it is that there's problems going on,' expert says

A University of Calgary researcher who studies youth substance use says parents should model appropriate drug and alcohol use and have open conversations with their kids to prevent abuse in the future. (Chris Hondros/Getty)

Talking to kids about drugs may get a little foggier when adults are legally allowed to consume cannabis starting next summer.

Cannabis use is scheduled to become legal for adults in July 2018. In Alberta, the provincial government intends to set the minimum age for using the drug at 18 years old.

But as use becomes more visible, the Calgary Eyeopener has turned to public health researcher Rebecca Haines-Saah for advice on having a conversation with your kids about safe cannabis use. 

"It will be tricky but I think I'm not concerned about it being problematic," said Haines-Saah, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, who studies adolescent mental health and substance use.

"If we model things for our kids, like responsible use of pot like we do with alcohol, I don't see a problem."

People should watch for loved ones using cannabis frequently or as a means to treat underlying mental health conditions or emotional distress, she said in the interview Monday.

Q: Until now, it was fairly easy for parents to say "look, it's illegal, don't buy it." End of conversation. Just add it to the list of illegal things you can't do. Now what do you do?

A: I think the first thing we need to do is not panic. I travel in a lot of policy circles and I meet a lot of parents, and a lot of people are worried that we're going to see skyrocketing rates of teen marijuana use after legalization.

There's just not a lot of great data at the population level to suggest that's the case, so we don't need to immediately panic about a lot of kids using and a lot more adults using.

Rates are already super high in Canada. We have the highest rates of cannabis use amongst 15 year olds in any developed country. So there's not much to suggest things are going to get a lot higher. It's already going on but we do need to have new conversations with kids.

Q: Do we have any idea of why they're so high?

We don't have any idea of why they're so high compared to other nations but this forms the rationale for legalization, that something so many people are doing, both adults and kids. 

Making it illegal hasn't worked so this is the policy rationale. We're going to do something to keep people safer so we can have open conversations and a safer supply.

Q: How old should your kid be when you start that conversation?

A: We don't have a cutoff for when use is safe to begin, and that's something that's debated.

I have an eight-year-old at home and he hears about cannabis a lot, obviously, because of the work I do.

But we've already started that conversation, in the same way we talk about tobacco and alcohol as being an adult behaviour.

Q: And kids recognize the smell. Where do you start the conversation? They're aware of it, perhaps they've smelled it around your friends, maybe you're at a concert, wherever.

A: Prevention science is still developing. Two sort of baseline things that we know from the evidence is that the earlier that you start, the more likely that you'll have problems later on in a trajectory of problems with other substances. It's all about delaying use as long as possible.

And when we talk about early onset use, I'm not talking about 18 year olds smoking at a party on the weekends. I'm talking about kids who are under 15 who are initiating regular use.

It just kind of makes sense.

Like other risky behaviours for teens, like early sexual activity, the earlier you start, the more likely it is that there's problems going on.

The other thing that we know is that frequent and heavy use is associated with problems for teens and also with adults.

My colleagues and I always say, if a teen is waking up in the morning and is needing to get high to cope with their day to go to school, or you have a sense that they're smoking with their friends every day after school, obviously this is a problem. If someone is using occasionally on the weekend recreationally, this might not be something that's problematic.

Q: Do you have to be careful as a parent what your own assumptions are about pot when you deliver those messages?

A: I think it's really hard because we have been living in this — some of us — "just say no" era where it's illegal, don't do it, so we don't have a metric now.

I think the important thing to communicate to kids is, just because something is legal, doesn't mean it's safe for everyone all the time.

We seem to have that message with alcohol and I'm hoping we can have those open conversations with kids now. You know there's some research that shows when something's legalized, kids see it as less risky.

But seeing it as less risky doesn't necessarily mean you're using problematically.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener