Tara Walton / The New York Times
Sunday, November 18, 2018 2:00
THORNBURY, Ontario – Parents and grandparents invaded the small Thornbury hall, a sleepy ski town north of Toronto, to get tips on how to talk to their teenagers about potential marijuana damage.
It took less than a week before Canada was allowed to legalize marijuana, a public health session had a message for parents: marijuana would be legal for adults, but it was not safe for young people. And parents had to instill in their children the idea that a jug can be dangerous.
"It has been proven that the brain continues to grow until it reaches the age of 25, and we still legally sell it to people aged 19," said Jenny Hanley, Addiction Advisor after she left the meeting, 2 1/2 hours north of Toronto . "What the hell is our government thinking?"
Canada last month became the second country where it is legal to buy, cultivate and consume small amounts of marijuana by adults. But committing a crime was also a crime for people younger than 19 or 18 years, depending on the province, and therefore a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment was imposed.
At the same time, the government began an educational campaign worth 83 million dollars, largely addressed to Canadian youth, who warns of the dangers of sweat.
However, convincing teenagers not to perceive legalization as a green light for using marijuana will be difficult, experts say, not to mention that the anti-drug efforts to date have given little evidence of success.
And when it comes to marijuana and teenage brain, science is not clear.
Officials argued that regulating the cannabis market and cracking down on illegal sellers would reduce its sharp rise among Canadian teenagers who, according to the 2013 UNICEF report, are already using it more than young people elsewhere in the world.
"The most insincere element of legalization is that it will stop him from children," said Dr. Benedikt Fischer, senior scientist at the Addiction and Mental Health Center in Toronto. "It's a big experiment in many ways."
Nevertheless, the officials are optimistic.
"Many young people think that it is a very gentle substance without risk – it is organic, it is natural and it is medicine," said Bill Blair, minister responsible for the legalization of marijuana, and formerly the chief of police in Toronto.
"When you start giving people facts that will replace mythology and disinformation, people make smarter and better decisions," he added.
But, as parents discover, searching for science and running teenagers is difficult.
Lounging on the bench at the back of the Thornbury session was Jared Kaye. For the first time he smoked marijuana at the age of 9, while drinking alcohol and then adding more powerful drugs. He started rehabilitation at the age of 15 and became homeless.
He and another addicted teen were taken by Hanley to live in her home near Flesherton, Ontario.
"I hurt my family very much," Kaye said, now 19. "I did not do anything, I only hurt myself".
Paul Thompson, a businessman from Stratford who attended a session during a city break, thinks marijuana is less dangerous.
When his 21-year-old son was arrested a few years ago in the case of allegations of marijuana, Thompson decided to provide marijuana to him to ensure that he did not contain other drugs.
"I think alcohol causes much more damage," said Thompson, the divorced father of three. "I do not believe that marijuana is addictive, addicts have deeper problems."
It is disturbing that both men were right.
Studies have shown that teenage use of marijuana can affect the brain's functioning for some time after cannabis left their bodies, and some teenagers are concerned that many teenagers use cannabis to self-medicate because of anxiety or depression.
Most scientists agree that the risk for young brains is greatest for those who start smoking at the age of 12 or younger, smoke regularly and choose high-powered marijuana.
Smoking is also dangerous for young people with family histories of serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
But for young people who start light experiments with the drug at a later age, the risk of long-term damage to their growing brains is reduced.
"This is a reasonable statement that it can affect the developing brain," said Matthew Hill, a neuroscientist at the University of Calgary who has been studying cannabinoids for 18 years. "It's not the same as saying it will eventually do it."
"The evidence is not as consistent and fascinating as some people like to shoot," he added.
While some studies have shown that regular cannabis use by young people changed the structure of the brain and long-term cognitive functioning, further research questioned these findings and concluded that alcohol use, smoking and family origin were the main factors influencing the reduction of IQ.
A recent analysis of 69 studies of young and frequent users of cannabis, published in JAMA Psychiatry, showed that the negative impact on cognitive functioning dispersed after 72 hours of free of drugs.
"Cannabis is correlated with many things," said James MacKillop, co-director of the Cannabis McMaster University medical research center in Hamilton. "Irritation, whether it is a causal relationship, is much more complicated."
"If you use cannabis when you are 12 or 13 years old, there are probably many other things going on," he continued. "There may be weak parental supervision, more stress associated with early life or family disorganization."
In order to make the situation more confusing, there are no strategies that would stop young people from trying cannabis.
Some public health units have adopted a harm reduction strategy, encouraging adolescents to take part in and be allowed to "free of hemp" days. Others proclaim abstinence.
"Because it's legal, it's not safe," said Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, a medical health specialist in Eastern Ontario. "This is our real message."
Researchers dealing with drug prevention say they know what does not work.
For example, the popular DARE program that sent police officers to school to teach children how to "just not talk about drugs" had no effect or worse, found in the United States. In some cases, this increased the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs.
Rebecca Haines-Saah, Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Calgary, studying cannabis use and preventing harm, calls on parents to talk early and regularly about the consequences of all substances, including caffeine.
"If we are not honest with children, they will find information elsewhere," she said.
After all the discussion about cannabis in Canada, when the day of legalization was approaching, many parents were worried when they learned how much it was possible for young people in the country. According to the latest Census Bureau report, 32.7 percent of teenagers have been smoking marijuana in the last three months.
It also seems that Canadian teenagers have developed myths to counter the claims of marijuana as a goal drug, said Fischer from Toronto. An addiction center.
According to the results of a national cannabis study in 2017, 19 percent of consumers did not think that this influenced their driving skills. There is a myth among young people that even improves them, say public health officials.
Fischer and other experts believe that it is unlikely that the law will reduce the use of young people. In Colorado and Washington, where recreational marijuana was legalized for adults in 2014, Youth use indicators remained relatively unchanged, according to state reports.
At a meeting at Thornbury Kaye said that in his opinion, parents should take an individual approach.
His parents, he said, were strict, which fueled his rebellious nature. "I need love for me," Kaye said. "I need to look after you."
His advice seemed to be a guide to parenting rather than a plan to counter drug abuse:
"Be open with your children," he said. "Strive to have close relationships so that they can freely tell you what they have tried and what their friends are doing."