The relationship between cannabis and society is evolving and with it comes incredible opportunities for medicine and an overall better quality of life. Children born in the last decade have the chance to be the first generation raised entirely in the post-cannabis prohibition era. This is an exciting time, where individuals will have the chance to be liberated from the decades of fear, shame, and clandestine activities that once were commonplace prior to legalization. However, despite its waxing popularity and relative safety, cannabis still poses a biological threat to the developing brain. An honest conversation about cannabis and solid safety practices could be the difference between accidental ingestion and a healthy respect for the plant. This conversation is best had between children and their parents, given that there is still little accurate, age-appropriate cannabis education happening in schools or anti-drug programs. Even if you have no personal opinion about cannabis, or are not a consumer yourself, it’s important to remain informed so you can help your child navigate the legalized landscape safely.
If you consume cannabis, store it safely
A study conducted by the Annals of Emergency Medicine included examined a case in which children were accidentally fed THC-infused candy at a birthday party. The incident landed 12 youth and six adults in the hospital; all were sent home within 12 hours. THC intoxication typically reduces motor function and short-term memory in adults, but the acute effects on children are lesser known. The children had more severe symptoms, an extended hospital stay and a majority displayed leukocytosis, or above-average white blood cell count, as well as elevated lactic acid levels.
Medical and recreational cannabis are often packaged to closely resemble non-medicated food.
Just like prescription medication and alcohol, storage plays a huge role in safety. Some cannabis producers and retailers include childproof packaging, but it’s a good idea to invest in your own methods for childproofing your cannabis products with containers and bags designed to keep little ones out. Keep in mind that once your child gets older, packaging and hiding will be less effective, and a locking container may be required.
Have an honest conversation about cannabis
In the age of legalization, cannabis has become increasingly more prevalent in the mainstream. Perhaps you pass a billboard with a gleaning close-shot of resinous buds, or an elected official is on the news speaking about cannabis — those are great opportunities to ask your child what they know and see what their thoughts are.
Children’s Hospital Colorado published a guide to help parents talk to their children about cannabis. The suggested age to open the cannabis dialog is 10, but if your child brings it up before they reach that age you should still discuss it with them. The goal is to create an environment where communication is encouraged so your child feels safe coming to you about their questions (or concerns) about cannabis. A simple “If you feel unsafe, give me a call, and I will help you.” will go a long way.
Pointers for a Smooth Cannabis Dialogue
It’s essential to outline the risks of underage use, but if you use cannabis yourself it could feel like a case of “do as I say and not as I do.”
However, there are legitimate consequences to health and well-being if a child consumes cannabis. Cannabis use can take a toll on learning ability, memory, and sleep patterns. It can contribute to depression, anxiety, and paranoia in adulthood, and it can also increase the likelihood of experiencing psychosis.
This is the period of a child’s life that they are the most receptive to the information you provide.
If they ask what cannabis is, give it to them straight. Tell them that cannabis is used both medicinally and recreationally (by adults).
This is also a good time to talk about how they should respond if offered cannabis. You can say, “It’s good to refuse something that is bad for your health. Say no, and let an adult that you trust know what happened.”
Ages 10 to 12
Children in this age range aren’t likely to have a formed their own opinions, but likely have encountered the topic of cannabis around friends or classmates. This is the best time to lay a foundation of facts and provide pointers on how to refuse use. Explain what the plant is and why some adults use it. Children at this age may start experiencing peer pressure. Equip them with the right information and consider role-playing to rehearse their response if they’re offered cannabis.
Ages 13 to 19
Your teen may have already formed an opinion about cannabis by this point, but parents still have critical influence during these years. Ask questions to assess what they already know and be sure to keep the tips mentioned above in your arsenal. The brain doesn’t develop fully until approximately age 22, so anyone under that age is susceptible to the negative effects of repeated cannabis use.
Brain development aside, there are many reasons teens should steer clear of cannabis. Because underage use is illegal at both the state and federal levels, teens risk a lot by engaging in cannabis use: financial aid, extracurricular activities, employment, and their driver’s license are all at stake.
Getting caught with the drug could result in a criminal charge of MIP, or Minor in Possession, which could prevent them from realizing other dreams like going into the military, attending college or turning their favorite hobby into a promising career.
The first fully normalized generation?
Possibly! Gen Z is the first that may live their entire life without the stigma attached to cannabis. Best of all, legalization and decriminalization are not linked to increase use among teens. One study showed that the legalization of recreational cannabis in Oregon did increase use in youth that are already using.
My child is using cannabis, what do I do?
If your child is using cannabis, get to the bottom of why they are using. Is it because their friends are doing it and they want to fit in? Is cannabis a way to escape school or home pressures? Understand why cannabis appealed to them and make a plan with your child to change and monitor the situation. Prolonged cannabis use also affects a person’s ability to deal with their emotions. Tweens and teens are susceptible to melodrama, but if you notice a significant difference in their behavior, it’s a good idea to ask some questions and see what’s going on.
Be prepared to discuss your personal use
If you use cannabis, you don’t have to give them all the details, but do be honest about it. Define the benefits for adults like, “It’s a natural way to take away my intense back pain.” Let them know that cannabis doesn’t work in the same way on a mind that is still growing.
If you are a recreational cannabis user you can say something along the lines of, “I am at an age where my brain can process the effects of cannabis, and I use the plant responsibly and consciously.” It is vital to reinforce messages like, “I do not use cannabis while or before driving, in excess, or to avoid problems.”
Every family will have to decide their level of comfort when consuming cannabis or being intoxicated in front of their children. Indoor air quality is a valid concern and many parents opt for smoke or vapor free options or go outside if they do choose to smoke. Whether you rely on medical cannabis for relief or enjoy it for recreation, be mindful and use your best judgment. Make sure there is another adult immediately available who can drive or deal with an emergency while you are intoxicated.
Cannabis is only one of many substances to talk about
Having the cannabis talk can be a natural pathway to talk about other substances that are harmful to a developing mind. Alcohol can cause irreversible brain damage, affecting thought and memory functions. Despite the long known facts about nicotine, it remains among the most heavily addictive substances of abuse. Tobacco use is harmful to people of all ages, associated with many forms of cancer as well as lung disease plus a list of other adverse effects. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to opioid abuse, given the perceived safety (it came from a doctor, right?), and easy access to these drugs (often from parents’ unlocked medicine cabinets). The brain does not distinguish a difference between heroin, fentanyl, or oxycodone: these drugs have equal abuse liability, and it is of critical importance that parents warn their children about the pitfalls of opioid use.
My child accidentally ingested cannabis
It is natural to experience anxiety or feelings of self-blame if your child accidentally ingests cannabis; however, it is important to keep calm and assess the situation to make the right decision for your child’s safety. Note the product type and how it was ingested to determine whether the situation is benign or needs immediate professional intervention.
Call 911 immediately if your child:
- Has collapsed
- Has trouble breathing
- Is unresponsive
- Will not wake up
If the child is not displaying the symptoms above, parents and caregivers should assess the best course of action with the Poison Control Center’s online tool.
They ate the actual bud
If your child consumes a small amount of raw cannabis, they are unlikely to experience the intoxicating effects of the plant. While unheated and in plant form, cannabis flower contains THC-A, an non intoxicating cannabinoid, not THC (the intoxicating cannabinoid). When exposed to an open flame or prolonged heat, the acid group disconnects from the molecule (a process known as decarboxylation), converting THC-A into active and intoxicating THC. When ingested raw, THCA is not typically intoxicating. That being said, there are many differences between the adult and child when it comes to digestion and drug metabolism (which largely takes place in the liver). We don’t fully understand the effects of THC-A in children, and if your child consumes raw flower, be on the lookout for signs of sleepiness and intoxication.