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Cannabis is the scientific name for a group of plants. Its leaves and flowers contain THC and CBD. THC is psychoactive, meaning that it affects how we think, feel and act. CBD is less psychoactive but can still affect how we feel.

Cannabis may come as

  • dried leaves and flowers or ‘buds’ 
  • pressed resin from flowers and leaves (hashish or hash)
  • concentrated resin extracted with a solvent (oil or wax)

Cannabis can be

  • smoked
  • vaporized into a mist (vaping)
  • taken orally as a tincture (concentrated liquid or oil)
  • applied to the body (for example: in skincare)

Some people bake the oil into cookies or brownies, or drink in a tea. Cannabis-infused food or drink products are called ‘edibles’. The amount of THC and CBD can be very different depending on how its used or consumed.

Youth most often smoke cannabis, followed by taking edibles and vaping. Youth who use cannabis in multiple ways are more likely to try other substances.


Why do youth use cannabis?

The most common reason young people give for using cannabis and other psychoactive substances is to feel good or have a good time. Youth report that smoking a joint with friends or at a party helps them relax and engage with others. Youth also use substances because they are curious. It is natural to want to explore the world and try new things.

Some youth use substances to improve their performance. Some youth use cannabis to help them concentrate in the same way others use caffeine to be more alert, perform better or focus. Others may use substances to help with sleep or appetite.

Young people may also use substances to feel better. As one young person said, cannabis “helps me relieve stress, manage anger… calms me down, helps me make it through the day."


How does cannabis affect the health of youth?

We need more research to better understand how cannabis affects the health of children and youth. Below is some information about the use of cannabis and its affects on physical and mental health.

Medical use of cannabis

Research has shown that for specific people, the CBD in cannabis can help relieve the pain, nausea and muscle problems that are a part of serious medical conditions. Cannabis can also improve the appetite of those with weight loss from HIV/AIDS or cancer treatment. It may also provide relief from anxiety, insomnia and depression for those struggling with chronic illness. Cannabis is not recommended for any mental or physical health conditions in children and youth except in very rare medical circumstances. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about the medical use of cannabis.

Non-medical use of cannabis

Many people who use cannabis socially say it helps them relax and increases their sense of well-being. However, some people feel anxious after using cannabis, which can cause them to withdraw from others. They may also have a hard time remembering things for several hours. In a small number of youth, cannabis use has also been linked to suicidal thoughts.  

When a young person uses a lot of cannabis everyday, it can negatively affect their quality of life, IQ level, motivation, attention, concentration and life satisfaction. It can also affect learning, problem-solving, and decision-making. A young person’s brain grows and develops well into their mid-20’s. This is why delaying cannabis use for as long as possible during brain development can decrease the risk of poor health outcomes.

Cannabis smoke contains toxins, so over time, heavy use of cannabis can increase the risk of breathing problems such as coughing and shortness of breath. Cannabis, especially the kinds high in THC, has been linked to psychotic symptoms or psychosis in a small number of people. They may experience thoughts, feelings, sounds or see things (hallucinations), that others around them do not experience. For most people, the symptoms go away and do not return unless cannabis is used again.

A small number of people may develop longer lasting psychosis. This usually happens only to those with a personal or family history of serious and persistent mental illness such as psychosis or substance use problems. The younger that someone starts using cannabis and the amount and length of time they use can contribute to a set of life conditions that, for this very small group, results in a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

When is using cannabis a problem?

Using cannabis is a problem when it negatively affects the life of your child or the lives of others. Most people do not experience long-term effects from experimenting with or using substances. It is important to remember that the level of risk related to cannabis use differs from person to person, from use to use, and depends on much more than the properties of the drug itself

These factors include:

  • starting to use at an early age (young brains are still developing and are more vulnerable to the effects of psychoactive substances)
  • how often it is used
  • how much it is used and the THC content
  • the method of use (for example: smoking, vaping, ingesting)
  • how and from where the drug is obtained
  • their personal health history
  • when and why they use the drug
  • what they're doing when they use (for example: driving, using other drugs, sexual encounters)

There is no universally accepted “safe” level of cannabis use, but the factors above can affect the risk for a person using cannabis.

A young person may think it is fun to use cannabis every day or smoke a lot of cannabis at a party. But this can result in less contact with others, ignoring responsibilities, giving up previously enjoyable activities, increased poor decision making or have other negative health effects. Visit Foundry’s website for more information on the health effects of cannabis.

Cannabis may help ease anxiety or stress if it is only used once in a while. But, like alcohol, if it is used more regularly, or the amount of cannabis being used increases, the chance of harm increases.

Frequent or intense cannabis use can also lead to a young person’s body becoming dependent on cannabis or needing increased amounts to achieve he same effects. If your child is noticing challenges such as cravings, difficulties with cutting down or controlling the amount of cannabis use, speak with a health professional.


Discussing non-medical cannabis legalization with your child

The media is full of stories about cannabis becoming legal, so this is a good time to discuss the topic with your child. Every time a story appears, you have a chance to explore the issues. You will gain some idea of your child’s thoughts and feelings about cannabis, and they will learn how you process information and make decisions. These conversations will allow you to correct any confusion and share your own ideas and values. For example, youth need to be aware that possession and use by people under 19 is still illegal. They need to understand the possible benefits and harms of cannabis use and how to make smart decisions. Your child will develop skills for managing life by learning about your choices, expectations and reasons.

If you are looking for more information about the laws regarding cannabis including the use of cannabis and travelling with cannabis, you can visit the governments website here.

Tips for starting the conversation

Sometimes the hardest part of talking about a subject is taking the first step to tell someone you want to talk about it. This is often the case with cannabis – it can be awkward and seem difficult to take the first step to talk with your child. Look for a chance to bring up cannabis naturally as part of the conversation or when a situation arises.

Here are a few helpful tips to help start the conversation.

  • If you see cannabis mentioned somewhere (such as on TV, social media, in the neighbourhood) ask your child very casually what they know about cannabis.
  • Ask your child if any of their friends smoke cannabis or have tried it.
  • Ask questions about their opinion on things related to cannabis. This can include what you see in the news. For example, you could ask what they think about cannabis legalization or testing drivers to see if they are high while driving.
  • Use "what if" questions to talk about cannabis. For example, you could ask your youth “what would your friends do if someone offered them cannabis at a party”?
Tips to support your child

There are several ways to help youth safely deal with their contact with (or even use of) cannabis. It is important to remember the many reasons youth use cannabis and to understand the interests and concerns of your child. It is not helpful to just tell them not to use cannabis.

The tips below will help you support your child and reduce any risks from cannabis use:

  • Stay connected. Adolescence is a time when your child may want to pull away. It is important to respect their independence and stay connected at the same time. Build a strong relationship with your child by taking part in activities with them and getting to know their interests and their friends. Your healthy relationship will mean it is more likely you can help them to make informed and safer choices.
  • Talk about it. Have open, ongoing talks so your child is able to express their ideas and hear yours. If you let the discussion grow out of opportunities that come up, it is more likely you will have a meaningful talk. Show respect for and a real interest in what they think. You will have lots of opportunity to share any concerns you have (about the legal and health risks of having, using, selling or sharing cannabis) once you show you are willing to listen.
  • Be curious. Try to understand and recognize that connecting with your child is more important than what you talk about. Build trust with active listening skills, ask open questions and seek understanding. Avoid trying to scare, shame or lecture as these do not build trust or show caring.
  • Focus on well-being. Let your child know that you care about their well-being. This means helping them develop the skills to make wise decisions; to know when to take risks and when to play it safe. Help your child consider the broader impact that cannabis may have on their life and to not just focus on the moment. Be there to help even when they make mistakes, for example, if they need a ride because they failed to plan a safe way home. Work with your child to help them develop strategies to use or things they can say or do to help them get out of uncomfortable or harmful situations.
  • Be informed. You do not need to be an expert, but when you take the time to learn about things that are important to your child, it shows you care. It also allows you to have meaningful two-way conversations with your child in which you both contribute and learn. When there is a chance to talk about cannabis, you will have a foundation on which to build. Remember you don’t need all the answers. It can be fun to look things up together. Check out Foundry’s website for information and tips on cannabis use for young people.
  • Be supportive. Youth use cannabis for many reasons: to feel good, to fit in or to cope with stress. If your child is experimenting, or thinking about it, with cannabis, be ready to help them reflect on their reasons and processes for making decisions. Be sure they consider other ways to take care of their needs and get support.
  • Be an example. Reflect on how you make decisions about how to have fun, socialize with friends, deal with stress or keep going when it is tough. How does substance use fit in? Be honest about your own struggles or the things you don’t know using age-appropriate language. Talk about why people use substances, the potential benefits and harms of substance use and how to deal with pressures in life.
  • Be ready. Pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life. Notice any sudden changes in mood or school performance. Are they avoiding activities they previously enjoyed? Your child could be going through a normal stage, but it could also be a sign of problematic cannabis use or a mental health challenge. Always be ready to listen. Respect their need for independence, but also be sure they know you are ready to help.

This section was informed by “Cannabis: What Parents/Guardians and Caregivers Need to Know” with permission from The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and School Mental Health ASSIST for use in British Columbia and developed in conjunction with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. 

Looking for more information on this topic? Connect with a parent peer support worker at the Kelty Centre to discover additional resources, learn more about support and treatment options, or just to find a listening ear.   

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