How marijuana affects a developing brain

Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

There’s a common misconception that because marijuana is “natural” — and soon to be legal — it’s also somehow safe. Recent studies show that there’s a growing number of people who aren’t aware of the risks and long-term consequences of using marijuana, of which there can be many.

Unfortunately, one of the groups most susceptible to lasting damage from marijuana use is also the demographic that uses it the most — adolescents.

With legalization on the horizon in Canada, it’s never been more important to educate adolescents that natural and legal do not mean healthy or safe.

Marijuana use is on the rise

Canadian adolescents have the highest rate of marijuana use in the developed world. For example, 28 per cent of Canadian children aged 11 to 15 admitted to using cannabis at least once in the past year, compared to just 17 per cent in the weed-friendly Netherlands.

Studies show that when perception of marijuana’s risk drops, use of the drug rises quickly. In Canada, the perceived dangers of marijuana have been declining over the last decade. In 2014, less than 40 per cent of high school seniors said they believed regular marijuana use was risky, the lowest it’s been since the 1970s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cannabis use among Canadian adolescents has also been on the rise over the past few decades. Based on the Canadian Community Health Survey, use by Canadians ages 15 years and older almost doubled between 1985 and 2015. There’s also a sizable portion of the nation’s youth who use marijuana on a frequent basis. According to a recent study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 10 per cent of grade 12 students smoke marijuana every day.

Effects of marijuana on the adolescent brain

The brain continues to develop until the age of 25 or 26. During this period of neurodevelopment, the brain is thought to be particularly sensitive to damage from drug exposure, making adolescents uniquely susceptible to lasting damage from marijuana use.

The last region of the brain to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical to planning and judgment. Regular marijuana use during the developmental period has been shown to impair this section of the brain and its functions, such as attention, memory, motor coordination, learning and decision-making.

Numerous studies associate regular marijuana use with a bleak set of life outcomes including poor academic performance, increased welfare dependence, greater unemployment, addiction and lower life satisfaction and achievement.

What’s the solution?

If we want to see a decline in adolescent marijuana use, schools, parents and health care providers all have a responsibility to communicate the risks associated with marijuana.

Speaking to your children early and often about the hazards of marijuana is key to creating awareness. Ask about their friends and whether they are using marijuana, and then explore your child’s beliefs about it and whether they would use it if offered.

Need help broaching the subject? Your physicians and nurse practitioners at Copeman Healthcare can offer guidance on this important topic. Copeman Healthcare’s Copeman Kids (CK) for ages newborn to 17 and the Young Adults Prevention Program (YAPP) for ages 18 to 24 are designed to create a path to lasting wellness.