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The effects of Cannabis during adolescent years

Updated: May 9, 2021

Cannabis has been talked about today more than a few years ago. There are mixed messages in Canada about cannabis. Parents, teachers, public health practitioners and many others that work with youth, often struggle with how to have meaningful conversations about cannabis. The CCSA, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, could be a good support in getting more information about this topic as their report amongst others discusses the effects of Cannabis on adolescents.

Brain development during adolescence lays the foundation for success later in life. Conversely it is also responsible for challenges in adulthood. Adolescent years are marked by significant social, psychological and physiological changes. It is a time when young people begin to develop increasingly close bonds with their peers and explore their own distinct social identities. It is also when mental health and substance use problems can start to emerge.

Canadian youth uses cannabis more than any other illicit drug and many start using it as early as late elementary school. In fact, Canadian adolescents have among the highest rates of cannabis use compared to their peers in other developed countries.

What motivates youth to use cannabis?

  1. Enhancement - “It’s exciting”

  2. Social interactions - “It helps me enjoy a party”

  3. Coping “It helps me forget about my problems”

  4. Expansion - “It helps me understand things differently”

  5. Conformity - “So I don’t or won’t feel left out”.

  6. Recently, this list has been extended to include an additional category, which is Routine - “I use it out of boredom”.

Canadian youth have gotten the idea that cannabis is a widespread substance that peers and adults alike take on a regular basis. Young people believe that cannabis is harmless and not really a drug. If a young person is self-medicating with cannabis to cope with anxiety or stress, they may be more likely to continue if it works for them. They might think “ When I feel stressed out, I smoke pot and it relaxes me”. They may continue to use cannabis instead of finding healthy behaviours as alternatives – like sports, hanging out with a friend, playing music, talking to someone about their feelings, or reading a book – that can help in coping with the stress they feel.

It has even been used while driving since adolescents think that using cannabis does not have a negative effect on their driving which can be harmful. Some actually think that it improves driving performance as they seem to feel sharper and more focussed, others yet have expressed the opposite.

With that let’s discuss what the general short- and long-term effects of cannabis use on youth have been studied so far.

First of all dose, potency and cumulative exposure all contribute to various effects of cannabis in youth.

Short-term effects and cognitive impairment that have been seen are as followed:

  • Feelings of happy, relaxation, sociability or heightened senses

  • Reduction in decision-making, executive functioning, IQ

  • Problems with memory working and planning

  • Under performing in school and problems with memory, thinking and learning

  • Distorted perception (sight, sound, time, touch, taste)

  • Body tremors, loss of motor coordination and impaired reaction time

  • Difficulties problem-solving and emotional regulation

  • Increased heart rate and anxiety as well as panic attacks

These effects may be even greater when other drugs are mixed with cannabis. Youth seem particularly vulnerable to these negative outcomes due to the extensive structural and neurochemical changes that are taking place in the brain during adolescence. The ongoing development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex is influenced by it, which is critical to higher-order cognitive processes.

Some youth, especially inexperienced users, will experience unpleasant events such as intense anxiety, panic and psychotic symptoms when using cannabis. It has an effect on the brain's reward system - as do all other addictive drugs - the likelihood of developing problem use or addiction increases considerably for those who start young. It can be especially addictive when taken consistently. A regular use of cannabis means that the use of cannabis occurs regularly over time such as using it every day, or every weekend over a period of several months or over a number of years.

Long-term regular use that starts in adolescence has undeniably been found to be associated with many negative impairments especially when combined with alcohol. The risk of panic attacks or psychotic symptoms can increase the earlier it is used. Further impairments are:

  • Psychotic symptoms (changes in thoughts, feelings, and behaviours) especially when there is a family or personal history of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia

  • Consistent problems with attention, memory and verbal learning

  • While the evidence is not as strong regarding other mental health issues, there are possible links between regular cannabis use in youth and increased risk for depression and suicide.

  • Hospitalization due to a cannabinoid related disorder. This has to do with the dysregulation of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin since cannabis use can disrupt the functioning and development of these systems in early years.

Please find more information about the latest CCSA reports in the links below.

To be truthful, studies haven’t been practised long enough yet to state clearly the different effects cannabis has on youth. Therefore parents are the most important influence in a child's life as they can play an important role in helping their kids understand the impacts that substances can have on their mental and physical health. By sharing experiences and stories their children can make informed decisions about the use of substances as they grow older.

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