I have parent-anxiety. Specifically about pot.
All this talk about health benefits seems to gloss over the serious health risks for young people who use marijuana.
We don’t need scare tactics. No hyperbole.
But something in cannabis is able to interfere with still-maturing brain neurons and people can’t afford to lose IQ points.
Edmonton psychiatrist Dr. Adam Abba-Aji has a 16-year-old son. He’s also an associate clinical professor at the University of Alberta and the lead psychiatrist for Edmonton’s new mental health clinic for youth, Access Open Minds.
Many young patients wonder why they’ve come down with symptoms — anxiety, depression, panic attacks, schizophrenia — when others who smoke pot with them do not. It’s hard to know because there’s so much unknown, said Abba-Aji. He has only one simple way to explain it — “your brain was allergic.”
We don’t know for sure if legalization will increase the use of cannabis among those at risk — youth up to age 25. But it did in The Netherlands, the largest jurisdiction to allow it. Here, Health Canada promised to spend $100 million on education to warn young adults and others to go easy.
So do we know enough to feel confident?
In New Zealand, a group of researchers from several universities followed 1,037 children born in 1972 and 1973 for 25 years, the Dunedin cohort. They tested their IQ four times before each child turned 13, then asked if they used cannabis at age 18, 21, 26, 32 and 38.
They tested IQ again when the participants turned 38.
Participants who never used cannabis saw a slight gain in IQ. Those who used later, and just for a short period of time, lost three points on average.
But those who started using before they turned 18, and were still using during three other check-ins, saw a significant decline. They lost on average eight IQ points — enough to move someone from being middle of the pack to the 29th percentile. That’s a big enough drop to make it difficult to succeed at school and hold a good job.
That 2013 study has been criticized for having a small sample size, said Abba-Aji. Other researchers also criticized it for not analyzing if the early users also happened to have low socioeconomic status. But it’s enough to raise red flags.
Cannabis use among youth has also been linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, mood disorders and panic attacks. One in six young people who use daily or more become addicted, he said.
But perhaps the most contentious link is with schizophrenia. Many studies ask patients about their drug use, others follow cohorts of people, like army recruits. They consistently find a link, and it’s clear people who use cannabis early also develop schizophrenia earlier, said Abba-Aji. Their symptoms are more severe and less treatable.
But can cannabis cause schizophrenia? We don’t know.
It could be that people who are experiencing the early effects of schizophrenia — anxiety, depression, panic attacks or decrease in ability to socialize — seek out the drug to self-medicate.
It also could be that using cannabis makes young brains vulnerable. About one per cent of the population will develop schizophrenia, usually those with a family history or trauma in childhood, said Abba-Aji.
It could be that when people already at risk are high the damage from the THC in cannabis allows the symptoms of schizophrenia to erupt.
Whatever it is, Abba-Aji sees the affect at work. Patients who used cannabis are harder to treat.
There are ways to reduce risk. Health Canada recommends avoiding synthetic products and choosing weed with a lower THC content. That’s the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, which can cause hallucinations.
Go to a newly-opened shop and you should also find information on both the percentage of THC and CBD, “the good part of cannabis,” said Abba-Aji. CBD is what treats nausea in cancer patients or pain and decreased appetite in HIV patients.
It is huge if the end of prohibition takes business away from organized crime. If it stops us from criminalizing young people and minority groups, that’s another big win. Maybe it will also reduce opioid prescription abuse and the opioid epidemic.
But when it comes to our children, let’s be vigilant, and err on the side of caution until we learn more.
Let’s watch rates of use in young people, high school performance, dropout rates.
Let’s fund the research we need and keep having frank, honest conversations.