Using cannabis has been a contentious issue for many years. Historically, those both for and against it, have not alwaysthe backing of facts to legitimize their opinions.
Now, with the large amount of scientific study and practical work that has been done in Israel and Canada, combined with the knowledge gained from areas where cannabis has been legal for a few years,in both the US and Europe.
SCIENCENow, there is science available about the effects of cannabis on young people, to inform both sides of the debate.
Legalising cannabis for adults affects availability for young people
The first thing to acknowledge is that the legalization of recreational cannabis for adults will affect the young in the same community. The legalization of weed for adults can lower the cost of the drug in the community, increase it’s availability and tacitly endorse it as a safe thing to do.
Legalisation can also create problems that were not there before, for example, extending the array of methods through which young people can take cannabis. Some recent examples include the creation of new products such as edible and vapable cannabis.
How can cannabis use affect the young?
Cannabis affects young people differently to older people. The evidence suggests that since the brain of young people is still ‘under construction’, some of those effects can be negative.
- Short term effects:
Can include focus levels, memory, learning and decision making.
FACTMarijuana has been shown to significantly and negatively effect the lives of young people who are ‘heavy’ marijuana users. It can affect the quality of their schoolwork and so, their grades, reduce their chances of getting a job and even lower their overall life satisfaction.
The evidence isn’t certain –some researchers believe alcohol use may be a confounding factor which has not been appropriately considered by every study. There are reasons to be concerned about the potential impact though. One longitudinal study (one which followed a group of New Zealand school children for several years, observing their cannabis use and level of ‘intelligence’) showed a drop of 6 IQ points among the heavy cannabis user group.
Minimum Legal age to use Cannabis
There are a number of different views, from around the world, each representing different areas of expertise and the interests of the commentators.
- Access only over 21 years:
The Canadian Psychiatric Society and Canadian Medical Association want the minimum legal age to be 21. This is because of the effects cannabis has on brain function and structure during development up into the mid-twenties.
- Restrictions until 24 or 25:
They also recommend that the strength of cannabis products made available to the young is also monitored and restricted until the age of 24 or 25.
Many people, including those who contribute to the TRACE program (see footnote) are suggesting the minimum age should be 18 to bring it into line with the legal age for tobacco and alcohol, to divert young users from the black market. A low legal age to use cannabis, ithelps improve the common safety issues ofunregulated suppliers. These are often of an unknown quality and potentially contaminated with mold as well as containingadditives such as pesticidesand animal tranquilizers. A younger age for legalized access is also likely to stimulate earlier education for youngsters on the effects of use.
The difficulty of official policy on marijuana and teens
It seems that, all too often, those that are deciding drug policy find it difficult to get beyond a ‘total abstinence’ mandate. Policy makers seem to fear that when teaching young people about drugs, prevention,and the safe using of drugs,they are aiding and abetting (or at least enabling them) to use cannabis.
The issue creates an obvious risk for policy makers. They do not wish to be seen as presenting the appearance that the policies they eschewacceptscannabis taking or impart the message that using drugs is ok and normal for teens.
Cannabis education awareness for young people, using a truly youth-centered approach from an early age,and acknowledging that the black market will grant cannabis access from a lower age is the only way to prevent abuse and prevent the potential harms of cannabis use or misuse.
Summing up cannabis and the young
Overall, based on the weight of the evidence available, it appears that 21 should be the minimum age at which the ‘young’ are allowed state sanctioned access to the drug. It would be irresponsible, given the evidence available, for the state to endorse a practice with clear negative mental health ramifications.
It’s also clear, however, from experience in other states, that legalizing marijuana will not end the black market for the drug. In addition to asserting a ‘late’ age for youngsters to be able to purchase cannabis, an additional key learning is a requirement for ongoing education of young people, about cannabis and in an exploration and understanding of the science. The results of the Canadian research in particular, are eye opening. The motivation of young people in taking cannabis appears considered, and very different to what many (frankly, poorly informed – and I include myself in that) adults might think.
In Canada, the TRACE program is trying to understand the teen cannabis culture. They suggest a lower legal age for youngsters to legally get hold of cannabis, because it opens the doors to education, helps to divert young people from common illicit markets and tends to prompt an earlier awareness and discussion for drug prevention and education.
- The Trace Project (Teens Report on Adolescent Cannabis Experiences):
In 2006, research was undertake in the Canadian province of British Columbia. In it, the research team spoke with teens who used cannabis frequently. The result was the first study in Canada to have exploring the culture and context of teen cannabis use, importantly, considering the question from their own perspective. It found that many young people use cannabis not to get “stoned or zonked out” but to relax and enhance different activities such as enjoying music, biking or skiing. Some also use it to self-medicate by relieving or managing their health problems.
- Social Ritual:
Using cannabis is also commonly seen as a coming of age ritual for adolescents in the western world, just like sexuality and sex. These experiences are often initiated because they are thought to show that a person has “Grown up” or reached a certain maturity. They are perceived to be the mark of an adult and to give physical pleasure, increase social standing, connections acceptance and peer bonding.