The pot talk we need
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that marijuana would become legal in Canada on Oct. 17. He had intended that it should be legal this Sunday – Canada Day. But the Senate, rousing itself from obsolescence just long enough to throw a wrench in the plans, delayed passage of the pot legalization bill until this month, making implementation by Canada Day impossible.
This may not seem like a particularly relevant topic for a Jewish newspaper editorial, but substance use is just as relevant in our community as it is in any. A few years ago, a panel discussion took place at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue on the topic. Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, a chemist and expert on marijuana’s medicinal uses visiting from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Dr. Kathryn Selby, a University of British Columbia clinical professor in pediatric developmental neurosciences, took opposing sides.
Mechoulam said that cannabidiol (CBD), a component in marijuana, may have medical uses “in almost all diseases affecting humans.” However, little scientific research has been done.
Cannabinoid receptors are abundant in several regions of the brain, including those where movement control, learning and memory, stress, cognitive function and links between cerebral hemispheres occur. CBD can also impact appetite, blood pressure, cerebral blood flow, the immune system and inflammation. It can, in some cases, reduce or eliminate seizures and cancerous tumours.
But Selby raised an issue that has gone almost entirely ignored throughout Canada’s national discussion about marijuana legalization.
Marijuana can have deeply deleterious effects on the brains of adolescents and young adults, altering the brain’s structure and function in lifelong ways. The development of the human brain continues into the 20s, Selby said, and the prefrontal cortex, where judgment and executive functions occur, is the last to develop – thus the most likely to be affected by intensive marijuana use.
Longer-term impacts of marijuana use by adolescents have been shown to correlate with schizophrenia later in life and a 50% to 200% increase in psychoses among heavy users. Daily marijuana use during high school has been correlated with a 600% increase in depression and anxiety in later life.
Selby recommended that marijuana use, if undertaken at all, should be “as late and as little as possible.”
During the national discussion around this issue, much concern was expressed about the ability of law enforcement officials to identify and measure marijuana impairment among drivers. Almost no discussion was devoted to the effects of marijuana on developing brains.
Part of the reason for delaying legalization until October was to allow provincial and municipal governments to prepare for the related distribution, legal and other public policy issues legalization raises. While criminal law is a federal issue – marijuana legalization is on Ottawa’s plate – it is the provinces that determine where, how and to what consumers the “product” may be marketed. In Alberta and Quebec, the age will be 18; in the other provinces, 19. (Most provinces have made the decision to create equal ages of majority for alcohol and marijuana purchase.)
Alcohol has its own harmful impacts on the bodies of young (and older) people, but marijuana may have particular harms on the development of adolescent and young adult brains.
Once the brain is fully developed, by the mid-20s, the dangers of permanent damage by marijuana use are significantly reduced. This scientific evidence – not the fairly random legal decision to permit consumption at age 18 or 19 – should perhaps have received more attention than it has. Given that it did not, it now falls to parents, grandparents, trusted adults and educators to share with young people the potential harm heavy marijuana use has for adolescents and young adults.
It is time Canada moved away from prohibition and towards a compassionate model that reduces and minimizes the harm that stems from fear and a lack of evidence-based policies. Fear-mongering is a waste of time – and marijuana’s positive impacts can’t be denied.
However, for those of us with young people in our lives, a good approach is to model the moderate use of all substances, to leave open lines of nonjudgmental communication (however hard that is) and to demonstrate for one another how to make wise and healthy choices. Sharing information in a rational way and asking young people to avoid heavy use or to delay if possible is the least we can do. It is our hope, too, that pot companies will temper their impulses to capitalize on every opportunity and avoid marketing edibles made to appeal to children and teens so that we’re not fighting an uphill battle. Healthy communities with resilient kids are a group effort.