Driving a major highway in California, one can’t miss the giant billboards announcing the coming of Cannafest, a “cannabis festival and trade gathering” featuring vendors “selling wares,” music, games, and a “family interactive zone” for “whole family fun.”1 Such billboards have become commonplace in states with legalized marijuana, but for anyone who grew up experiencing criminal penalties and mandatory viewings of Reefer Madness in high school—a film that shows marijuana driving young people to insanity and criminal acts—this public celebration of pot for the whole family is still a bit mind-bending.
And yet, while many are celebrating the opening of marijuana markets and especially the power of marijuana to heal and assuage various health issues, some are questioning its effects on the very young. This concern has come into sharp focus because unlike back in the days when marijuana was used almost exclusively to get high, when it either was smoked or baked into brownies, now pot appears in countless forms, from oils and drops to kid-friendly gummy bears. And apparently, when parents keep the candies in the cabinet, the kids raid and enjoy the effects.
Why is this a problem? In teens, the main issue seems to be that pot can trigger psychiatric episodes, with symptoms so severe that hospitalization is required. Hospital admissions also result when toddlers and younger children have toxic reactions. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, sleepiness, and even seizures and coma.2
“Parents need to understand that kids can actually get sick from this stuff,” says Dr. G. Sam Wang, a pediatric toxicologist at Aurora Hospital in Colorado. He points out that parents assume cannabis is harmless because they smoke it and suffer no negative effects, but children experience the effects differently.
This reality is reflected in the fact that as legalization becomes more commonplace, so do hospitalizations of young people suffering negative reactions. The number of teens admitted to hospitals for problems related to marijuana exposure quadrupled in Colorado after pot was legalized in the state.3 There’s also been a dramatic spike in cases of young children being admitted to hospitals because they’re having toxic reactions. In fact, across the US, in states where marijuana is legal, calls to poison control centers reporting emergencies with young children increased by an average of 30 percent each year from 2005 to 2011.
One conclusion that marijuana critics may jump to is that the substance causes psychiatric problems in teens, and that’s certainly an alarming contention. And yes, there’s plenty of research showing a connection between cannabis and the onset of mental illness. But it’s important to recognize that serious mental illness, and, in particular, psychosis, tends to manifest in the late teens to early twenties anyway if it’s going to show up, whether marijuana is involved or not. The average age of onset for schizophrenia is 18 for men, and 25 among women.4 Rather than being a cause, marijuana might simply speed things along, as studies do show that any psychoactive substance can trigger psychotic episodes. If someone doesn’t have the make-up to become psychotic, that reaction can’t and won’t occur. In other words, rather than being the cause of psychiatric crisis, marijuana might simply be the spark that lights a smoldering fire that’s going to ignite eventually anyway.
That’s not to say that marijuana won’t cause lesser psychiatric crises that last a few hours or so. Today’s cannabis products are as different from the reefer of the 60s and 70s as canned spinach is from the real thing—a whole lot stronger. And stronger doses can disorient anyone, particularly young people who don’t know what to expect and who still have developing brains. Back in 1972, the average THC content in marijuana (THC is the psychoactive component that makes users “high”) was less than one percent.5 Now, it’s closer to 20 percent, with strains as high as 30 percent available on the market.6 Translated, that means that potency has increased by 2000-3000 percent, on average, since the days of Richard Nixon, and the effects are far more dramatic.
As Dr. Julie Holland, a New York psychiatrist and cannabis specialist explains in a CNN interview, “The risk is not that you'll stop breathing or that you'll die. The risk is that you'll become very altered and disoriented, and you can get anxious and panicky in that situation."
Given that six percent of teens (about 5 million in actual numbers) consume cannabis daily, it’s a wonder that more don’t end up hospitalized. But some say mental health issues are the least of the concerns related to teen use—they’re more worried about cognitive effects. To be fair, research on the long-term cognitive effects on teens has turned up mixed results, but at least a few studies have tied heavy marijuana use in adolescence, particularly up to age 17, to long-term alteration in the brain’s structure and resulting loss of significant IQ points, with severity of symptoms corresponding to level of use.7 Adults, on the other hand, may actually reap cognitive benefits and memory restoration from marijuana use, studies show.88 Again, the developing brain reacts differently to psychoactive substances than does the adult brain.
On the other hand, some childhood conditions seem to respond well to cannabis. Preliminary studies indicate that it might be useful in treating kids with autism and those who suffer from seizures, reducing frequency. But will it be helpful to your kids? Or harmful to them? The bottom line is that the jury is still out, research is still underway, and we probably won’t have definitive conclusions for another decade. In the interim, you’d do well to lock up your own stash, cajole your kids to hold off until age 17, and use responsibly after that.
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