Byline: Vaughan Dowie
The legalization of marijuana in Canada now appears to be a question of when and how, not if. The new federal government has committed to this initiative and is now looking at how to implement it.
A large part of our society believes marijuana is a relatively harmless substance, but that isn't entirely true. The impact of marijuana on an adolescent's brain can be severe. In fact, study after study has shown that frequent marijuana use by young people can have a number of negative effects and leave lasting impairments on a brain that is still growing and developing.
In a recent report, for example, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse states that "early and frequent (marijuana) use can seriously limit a young person's educational, occupational and social development, and some of these adverse effects may be irreversible."
And yet much of our population still sees marijuana as a relatively benign drug. Not unlike alcohol, it is often used socially to alter consciousness for a period of time, break down social inhibitions and help one feel included, normal. For many youth, however, it does not work this way.
Pine River Institute is a residential treatment facility for adolescents struggling with addictive behaviours. We serve young people from across Ontario at our campus northwest of Toronto.
The majority of those we treat use a range of substances, but most identify their primary drug of choice as marijuana. It has not worked for them, and they are not functioning well socially, at home or at school. They do not feel normal.
Most of the youth we see have experienced a number of interventions before coming to us: individual psychotherapy, family therapy, medical intervention, day treatment, or short-term residential programs. They have not responded to these less intensive approaches, and continue to spiral down. Conversations with our colleagues who work with adolescents across North America tell us this is a common profile.
When marijuana is made legally available to adults, like tobacco and alcohol, its use will be normalized. One potential effect that legalization may have is an increase in use by adolescents due to greater social acceptance, increased availability and possibly lower prices. Young Canadians already have the highest rate of marijuana use in the developed world.
What can we do to reduce negative consequences for young people? At the very least we need to reinvest a significant portion of the revenue that the federal and provincial governments will be collecting from both the taxing and potential retailing of marijuana into funding additional treatment. The current system is significantly under-resourced; at Pine River Institute alone we have more than 200 names on our waiting list for services.
The second focus must be on developing creative and effective public-education approaches. Despite the clear dangers, many adolescents and even their families believe that nothing really bad can happen from using marijuana.
The lessons we've learned from neuroscience about the impact of marijuana on the still-developing brain of a young person are not as well-known as they should be, especially by young people themselves. We need to create effective approaches that will resonate with adolescents so that they better understand the dangers that come with the drug, particularly with early and frequent use. We must also develop tools to educate and enable families to initiate these conversations at home.
As we embark on the discussions that will lead up to the eventual legalization and retailing of marijuana, much will be said about the safeguards that must be put in place to prohibit the sale of pot to minors. The reality is that no plan is foolproof and right now there are not enough services for adolescents with addiction issues and their families. Significant investments need to be made to address both the current deficiencies and the potential increased demand.
The legalization of marijuana appears to be inevitable, so we need a robust public policy approach that effectively reduces the negative consequences of marijuana use by young people. If we choose to legalize marijuana, we need to get it right.
Vaughan Dowie is the CEO of Pine River Institute.