Health experts warn educators to ramp up readiness for pot legalization

This post was originally published on this site

With universities and schools providing few details around strategies for marijuana legalization, doctors who treat youth have serious concerns about the inevitable increase in use and the impending impacts of what can be a dangerous drug.

Dr. Chris Wilkes, Alberta Health Services head of child and adolescent psychiatry, said educators “need to ramp it up” in terms of creating environments to ensure safety and informing youths about the health effects of marijuana.

“The perception now with legalization is that marijuana is safe, and it’s less toxic than alcohol. But that is not that case at all,” said Wilkes, estimating about 37 per cent of Grade 12 students in Alberta have used marijuana, and of that 10 per cent are believed to be using daily or are dependent. 

As a doctor who works directly with youth faced with mental health problems, Wilkes is concerned more youths will self-medicate with pot to deal with stress. That becomes particularly concerning at a time when marijuana can have a serious impact on young, developing brains, he added.

Wilkes explained that because the brain is still developing in young people well into their mid-twenties, cannabis use can impair the hippocampus, the part of the brain connected to attention and memory, as well as the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates emotions.

“If you’re a young adult, your brain is still developing, and cannabis impacts memory, attention skills, control of your impulses, prioritizing, and problem solving.”

He added that pot users are also at increased risk of psychosis, an impaired perception of reality, including hallucinations and delusions. 

Dr. Eddy Lang, professor and department head for emergency medicine at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, said Calgary is already seeing more emergency room visits related to marijuana use.

And he worries those most vulnerable to the drug’s effects, youth aged 18 to 24, are not educated enough around its potentially harmful impacts.

“On the eve of marijuana legalization, we have serious concerns,” Lang said.

“We’re very worried about a sharp uptick.”

As the country edges closer to legalizing the recreational use of pot, expected sometime this summer, Lang said Calgary emergency rooms have seen a marked increase in Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome, which results in prolonged attacks of severe vomiting and then dry-heaving every hour for up to two days.

“I could make this diagnosis with a blindfold. It’s very distinct, repetitive vomiting, a loud retching,” Lang said.

“It’s torture really … and it’s happening even with regular users.” 

Lang added that that he worries hospitals will also be presented with more mental health emergencies as youth experiment or self-medicate with marijuana during a time in their lives when they typically deal with high amounts of stress, from school deadlines and exams to new relationships or separating from parents.

“We have an epidemic of anxiety and kids are using cannabis to deal with all kinds of stress,” Lang said.

“Now they’ll also be faced with mental health emergencies.”

Lang agreed with Wilkes that educators need to step up efforts in helping youths understand marijuana, a complex issue that will become especially fluid with legalization.

“They have to be at the cutting edge of this stuff,” he said.

But in spite of concerns, U of C provided no strategies around the legalization of pot — which could hit campus as soon as this fall — or how students will be educated on the impact.

Media relations spokesman Sean Myers would only say officials are “reviewing” their approach to managing legal substances and they will be guided by provincial regulations.

SAIT also offered no details saying legislation is “under development” and they will develop policies “when we know more.”

Mount Royal University did provide some details, saying they will allow marijuana use with tobacco use in designated areas on campus.

Mark Keller, director of residence services at MRU, said the school has created a committee to deal with what’s expected to be a fluid series of policies around use on campus, adding that the province and the federal government are also still gathering information.

And while concerns that increased pot use on campus could become a reality, Keller explained irresponsible use will be handled individually, just as irresponsible alcohol use is right now.

“There will be experimentation and we don’t really know what the impacts might be. This is all very new,” Keller said.

“But we will do whatever we can to educate students and ensure they are aware of harm reduction.”

Meanwhile, Calgary high schools could also see more students experimenting with legal pot during school hours even while school districts say marijuana will be banned like alcohol is.

But while the moral ground has shifted, neither the Calgary Board of Education nor the Calgary Catholic School District provided any new strategies around the complexities of legalized pot, explaining discussion of substance abuse has always been part of the health curriculum.

CCSD spokeswoman Tania Van Brunt said students may see more guest speakers from local agencies or emergency services to discuss marijuana legalization and its impacts.

Megan Geyer said the CBE is continually reviewing policies in light of new legislation and will do the same when marijuana is legalized.  

eferguson@postmedia.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.