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Cannabis and Youth: How to Communicate the Risks of Underage Use

Ah, to be young. Modern times may have brought new challenges to the lives of today’s teenagers, but most parents can personally sympathize with their kids’ main concerns: academic success, making friends, confiding in family, playing sports and staying active, and wearing the latest fashion. What parents should not sympathize with, however, is cannabis use.

Cannabis is a sensitive issue to raise as a parent, but an important one. Although it’s legal for adults to use cannabis medically – and soon, recreationally – cannabis doesn’t have the same benefits for the developing brain. New studies are looking into long-established guidance on cannabis use and ramping up discussions around its harm to brain development and mental health, even for healthy people under 21-years-old.

You might already be aware of these health risks. But how do you, especially as a medical cannabis patient yourself, convince a teenager who thinks they know it all?

“But It’s Legal!”

Sure – for adults, but think of it this way: What if you were to hear: “Booze is legal, and doesn’t give me any problems. So what’s the problem with my kid wanting to knock back a few?

Obviously, this isn’t a comment you’d expect from a parent. You’d be taken aback by such an attitude on underage drinking. So, should your reaction be any different in the context of cannabis? If you’d think twice about someone defending their child’s alcohol use, why let cannabis slide?

Most parents do lay down the law about drinking under age 21, and cannabis should work the same way for similar reasons. Both alcohol and cannabis are drugs that interact with the brain’s receptors in ways that an adult can handle in certain doses – and in the case of medical cannabis, even benefit from. But as research shows, the effects on young brains are quite different.

Once ingested, inhaled, or vaped, cannabis targets and activates what are known as cannabinoid receptors, which, in an adult, can produce medically beneficial effects like relaxation, pain relief, or even improvements in memory. Conversely, studies suggest, this targeting can block processes of memory and learning in children, impairing their ability to retain new memories. Some evidence has found a negative impact on IQ, while other studies even hypothesize a link with early-onset psychosis.

More research is needed on this, but the risks to learning and memory are concerning when, at high-school age, teenagers’ learning needs are arguably at their most critical. 

“I’m Old Enough to Make My Own Decisions.”

But not quite old enough. In the same sense that adult brains can process the effects of cannabis, they are also prepared for management of major life decisions that we’d never expect from the younger generation. You don’t sign your kids up to pay your mortgage. The car loans aren’t in their names. They need your permission to sign up for classes, to get a job, or even to play ball.

Kids are still kids, and they need adults’ guidance before embarking on the “adult” parts of life. Cannabis is no different. Giving consent for your child to drive is one thing, but signing off on driving under the influence is quite another – and that’s just one example of a real risk you would face.

The science is clear: Kids simply aren’t ready for recreational or medical use. As legalization breaks down barriers to cannabis, more people have come to accept the drug as a safe form of treatment. This means that, more importantly than ever, its contrasting effects on minors can’t be overlooked.

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