Government needs to protect teens when it legalizes pot: Canadian Paediatric Society

Recreational marijuana sales need to be restricted to protect minors, the Canadian Paediatric Society says in a new position statement, released as federal government moves forward with plans to legalize the cannabis industry.

Marijuana poses risks for developing brains and shouldn't be sold to those under 18 or 19, group says

Ahead of the federal government's plan to legalize recreational marijuana, the Canadian Paediatric Society says steps need to be taken to specifically protect children and teens. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The sale of recreational marijuana needs to be restricted to protect children and to discourage use by teens, the Canadian Paediatric Society is urging, as the federal government prepares to move forward with plans to legalize the industry.

In a position statement released Thursday, the medical group said the goal of its recommendations is to minimize harm for those most vulnerable.

"A very big issue, because of the rates of cannabis use in our adolescents, is for [parents] to have conversations with their older children and teens about the risks of marijuana on the developing brain," said Dr. Christina Grant, statement co-author and a member of the society's adolescent health committee.

The society points to a 2010 report by the World Health Organization that suggests about 30 per cent of Canadian youth have tried cannabis at least once by age 15 — highest among 43 countries and regions in Europe and North America.

The CPS is recommending a minimum age of 18 or 19 when it comes to the purchase of legal marijuana, though the group would like to see limits on THC imposed up to the age of 25. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

At his pediatric psychiatry practice at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto, Dr. Marshall Korenblum has seen how smoking pot can harm adolescents, who could develop problems with short-term memory, co-ordination and motivation. 

Korenblum, who wasn't involved in the position statement, said the adoloscent brain has been compared to a house under construction.

"The foundation and the walls are there because they've had that from childhood. But the roof is not yet built," Korenblum said. "When you have a house without a roof, if it rains, the amount of damage that's going to be done to the house is much more significant. Marijuana is the rain." 

The society said prohibiting cannabis use until the mid-20s would protect adolescents during that critical period of brain development, as does the College of Family Physicians of Canada

Given how many teens and young adults are experimenting with marijuana, CPS recommends striking a middle ground and prohibiting the sale of cannabis to age 18 or 19, depending on the province or territory, to align with the age of majority for alcohol and tobacco sales.

Increased potency

The society also recommends that the government consider limiting the concentration of THC — the main psychoactive component that provides pot's high — in cannabis that 18- to 25-year-old can legally purchase.

About one in six teens that regularly use marijuana can develop a cannabis-use disorder that may significantly interfere with their day-to-day functioning, Grant said. This can include things like going to school, having challenges with family and a loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto also recommends matching the minimum age for purchasing recreational marijuana to that of alcohol. 

But Dr. Bernard Le Foll, an addictions physician at CAMH, doesn't agree with restricting the potency of THC sold to young people.

"If you ban a product completely, you can have some negative consequences such as people will go to buy the product in the illicit market, and then maybe they will get exposed to more dangerous product," Le Foll said. "It can backfire." 

What could be more successful is changing the price to give people an incentive to opt for strains with lower THC, Le Foll suggested.

Edible issues

The CPS is also calling for a public education campaign — one that would include messages from young people — to reinforce that cannabis is not safe for children and youth and to provide up-to-date information.

In Washington and Colorado, two U.S. states where marijuana has been legalized, Grant noted that accidental ingestion of edible cannabis products by children is an issue.

Research suggests there's been about a 30 per cent increase in the number of young children being brought to emergency departments after accidentally ingesting pot-infused edibles, which can affect their breathing.

In Washington and Colorado, research suggests there's been a 30 per cent increase in the number of young children coming to ER departments after accidentally ingesting pot-infused edibles. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

In its position statement, the CPS also calls on the federal and provincial/territorial governments to:

  • Enact and rigorously enforce regulations on the cannabis industry to limit the availability and marketing of cannabis to minors.
  • Prohibit smoking of cannabis in public venues or smoking in cars where a child is present.
  • Invest in the development and implementation of programs for routine roadside detection of cannabinoids.
  • Increase funding for research, prevention and treatment of substance use.
  • Increase funding for mental health promotion and for treating mental illness in this age group.
  • Consult with Indigenous communities on adapting legislation, preventative measures and interventions to meet local conditions and cultural requirements.

The Canadian Paediatric Society released a separate position statement about medical marijuana use in children and teens last February.

Watch CBC's Marketplace at 8 p.m. on Friday for more on cannabis in Canada.

With files from CBC's Vik Adhopia


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