Mental health implications of cannabis for youth

May 16, 2018

Research is now indicating that cannabis can have adverse effects on mental health, and contrary to popular belief, can be an addictive substance.

Marjorie Wallace, former journalist and founder and chief executive of SANE in the UK, which aims to raise awareness of mental illness, was one of the first to establish the relationship between cannabis use and schizophrenia. In 1987, in the Times series The Forgotten Illness, Wallace outlined many cases in which cannabis users, or family members of cannabis users, described personality changes after marijuana was used. These findings were also outlined in CBC’s The Nature of Things.

Since the 1980’s, many other studies have reported similar findings in their studies of cannabis use, and have identified that boys who are genetically predisposed to schizophrenia and use cannabis frequently before the age of 16 are more likely to experience adverse effects on brain functionality. Alternatively, there are studies showing that cannabis is used by some to manage mental illness; in 2013, the Centre for Addiction and Mental health posted US statistics that indicate that people with mental illness are seven times more like to use marijuana than those who do not suffer psychologically.

Toronto adolescent psychologist Dr. Kelly Blanchette calls the looming legalization of pot in Canada a “public health issue,” and has noticed that in her own practice there exists a “huge intersection between cannabis use and just general mental health in a few different forms…for certain young people, they’ve started using cannabis almost as a means of self-medication to help them cope with some of the symptoms of other mental health issues with which they’re struggling.”

Except in cases where there exists a family history of psychosis, wherein she strongly recommends that family members avoid using cannabis and states that cannabis use coupled with a family history of mental illness can possibly develop into schizophrenia, Blanchette does not advocate cutting-off cannabis users cold turkey, as she says that the drug can play an important part in users’ coping strategies. Instead, she shares information about the pros and cons of cannabis use so that her patients can make the right choices for themselves.

With the legalization of cannabis on the horizon in Canada, Blanchette acknowledges that teenagers will no longer be deterred from using the drug because of legal reasons, and new conversations will have to emerge between patients and health professionals regarding adolescent cannabis use.

Bill C-45, the proposed cannabis legislation that will legalize cannabis across Canada, is currently being debated in the Senate, with a hopeful summer 2018 roll out. Several of the issues that are slowing the legislative process include the perceived lack of education and awareness regarding the effects of cannabis use on young people.

In response to legalization dissenters such as Conservative Senator Nancy Greene Raine, who has expressed concerns that the legalization of cannabis sends “a very strong message to young people that [cannabis use] is OK,” Health Minister Ginette Petitpas has outlined a number of the government’s social media awareness campaigns that appear on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube and seek to inform the youth of Canada about the adverse effects of cannabis use. As well, in addition to the $9.6 million they allocated as part of 2017’s budget, the federal government has also promised that $36.4 million will be spent on cannabis education and awareness over the next five years.