VSannabis could still be banned at the federal level, but most American adults (88%) say it should be legal, according to a Nov. 22 poll from the Pew Research Center — and in nearly half of the states, it’s the case. Like any psychoactive substance, however, cannabis carries certain health risks, especially for children and adolescents.
For the past two decades, cannabis cases have flooded the hotlines of American poison control centers, facilities across the country staffed by toxicology experts who provide round-the-clock advice to the general public and medical professionals. According to a new study published in Clinical toxicology on Dec. 5, which reviewed records of nearly 339,000 poison control cases, the number of calls involving marijuana rose 245% among 6- to 18-year-olds between 2000 and 2020. More than 80% of exposures concerned adolescents aged 13 to 18.
The study did not describe the health problems caused by or associated with cannabis in these cases, but doctors who work with children say they can be serious, including episodes of psychosis. Other problems associated with cannabis are less dramatic, but equally concerning, including memory problems, aggravated mood problems, and school problems.
Why have more cases involving children and cannabis been reported?
Cannabis cases increased by about 25% between 2010 and 2017, but jumped by 40% between 2017 and 2020. This period coincided with the legalization of cannabis in many American states, notes Dr. Adrienne Hughes, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University and the senior author of the article. During this time, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona and 10 other states have all legalized the use of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes. “Obviously it’s only legal for adults, not children, but I think we can probably agree that it made the drug more accessible to children, and probably contributed to the perception that it’s also safe,” says Hughes.
Another issue is that in recent years young people have increasingly used cannabis in new forms, including in vapes and as edibles, the authors note. Edibles, in particular, have become more common among calls to poison control centers. Although studies have shown teens believe they are less harmful than the traditional method of smoking marijuana, edibles come with their own set of risks. It can be difficult to manage your dose when consuming edibles, and they can take hours to show up, meaning kids may unknowingly eat more to try and feel their effects.
What are the risks of cannabis for children?
Marijuana is safer than many other illicit substances like cocaine or opioids, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe. Research suggests that children may face greater mental health risks, such as worsening depression and anxiety, attention and memory problems, and cannabis use disorders, than children. adults, because their brains are still developing.
In some cases, cannabis can even land children in the hospital. Dr. Willough Jenkins, a psychiatrist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, California’s largest children’s hospital, says he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of older children being hospitalized after using cannabis over the past five years. She now sees several teenage patients a week with cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, a condition involving severe vomiting caused by prolonged exposure to cannabis, which puts people at risk for weight loss, dehydration and malnutrition. Patients are usually treated with IV fluids or, in extreme cases, feeding tubes.
Jenkins also sees two or three cases a month in which cannabis use appears to have triggered a psychotic episode. “You have a young person who comes to the hospital very confused, usually very disoriented, not knowing where he is, mind-blowing,” she says. “These young people arrive without being able to eat, without being able to go to the toilet.”
How should I talk to my child about cannabis?
Building trust with your children and creating a “sense of safety” is key, says Emily Jenkins, who researches substance use in youth and is an associate professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Ottawa. University of British Columbia in Canada (and not related to Dr. Willough Jenkins). Ideally, you can avoid a specific, serious discussion about this, as that could very well turn a teenager off anything you say – it’s best to approach these conversations more frequently and in a more casual way, like when marijuana is mentioned in a TV show.
“We can create an open space where young people feel safe to disclose their considerations and decision-making practices around substance or cannabis use,” she says. If parents are too harsh when talking about cannabis, or, on the other hand, if they are too permissive, children may find themselves “with no one to turn to when they need guidance or advice. “, she says.
How can I help my child make their cannabis use safer?
Emily Jenkins notes that Canada, where she lives and which has legalized cannabis, has a list of guidelines designed to make cannabis use safer. In particular, she says, parents should recognize that the greatest risks arise when children are younger — under 16, according to Canadian guidelines — and use cannabis too frequently (daily or nearly daily). Jenkins adds that choosing cannabis products that are low in THC (experts often classify a THC level of 15% or more as high potency) as well as avoiding smoking to avoid inhaling carcinogens, can also to help.
California psychiatrist Dr. Willough Jenkins says she sometimes works with adolescent patients to adopt healthier ways of smoking, such as reducing the amount they smoke or the time they spend using cannabis. Some children also use marijuana to cope with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, and may need help treating their underlying condition. Experts generally agree that parents should watch for red flags that their child’s cannabis use is spiraling out of control, such as missing school or showing up drunk; excessive cough; or acting paranoid. It is also essential that some adolescents do not use cannabis at all, including children with conditions like cystic fibrosis, who take other medications and may be at risk for dangerous drug interactions, or who have a family history of psychosis.
Jenkins points out that cannabis use is not “safe”. While it doesn’t attract most hospital users, it does come with some very real risks, including addiction. However, when she encounters a patient who uses a lot of cannabis, she does what she can to help make their use safer. “If I told them you can’t use marijuana, they’d say ‘see you later,’ which isn’t what I want,” she says. “So while I hope they get to a place where they don’t need to use marijuana, I’m working with them where they are.”
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