How to talk to your teen about cannabis

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Courtesy of Lift Magazine

If your teenaged child hasn’t tried cannabis already, there’s a decent chance he or she will soon.

This is not hyperbole: Canadian teens are the top cannabis consumers in the developed world. Young adults, or youth aged 18-15, represent the largest age group of cannabis users in Canada, reporting three times more cannabis use than adults.

These are all good reasons for starting a conversation with your kids, but knowing you need to have one isn’t the same as knowing where to start. To get advice on kickstarting a cannabis conversation with your teen, we spoke to two top researchers on youth and cannabis.

Dr. Rebecca Haines-Saah is an assistant professor at University of Calgary, working in community health sciences. Previously she conducted qualitative research with the Teens Report on Adolescent Cannabis Experiences (TRACE), where she and colleague Emily Jenkins focused on adolescent substance use and mental health. Thanks to an earlier stint starring on the CBC hit Degrassi (where she played troubled teen Kathleen), Haines-Saah says that talking to youth about important issues comes naturally.

Jenna Valleriani is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Collaborative Addiction Studies at the University of Toronto. She’s also the strategic advisor for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). Through CSSDP, Valleriani worked with the government’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation to organize a youth roundtable and ensure young voices were represented in the Task Force’s framework for legalization.

Here, Haines-Saah and Valleriani offer evidence-based tips for talking to your teens about cannabis.

Don’t wait

“We think that if we talk to kids about drugs that this is the same as enabling them or encouraging them to use drugs,” says Haines-Saah, but when you look at the numbers, this concern doesn’t hold–after all, nearly a third of Canadian teens are already experimenting with cannabis, irrespective of the law. “I’m thinking that’s not going to change post-legalization,” she adds. “We’re talking about those kids who are not going to care what the legal age is, or not going to care that it’s illegal. They’re going to experiment, so we need to equip them with information they can use.”

Say no to ‘just say no’

There are plenty of evidence-based reasons to want your kids to abstain from–or at least, delay experimenting with–cannabis, but research also shows that just like abstinence-based sex education programs, abstinence-based approaches to drug education simply don’t work.

“I think the first step is to try and open up the dialogue in a way that has the boundaries that are appropriate for your family, but keeping it as non-judgemental as possible,” says Haines-Saah. “Don’t be authoritarian, but you can certainly be authoritative.”

Focus on harm reduction

“Harm reduction can be a loaded term,” says Valleriani, but the approach, which “focuses on the risks and consequences of substance use rather than on the use itself” is increasingly popular among substance abuse experts (although not without some controversy).

Also controversial, notes Valleriani, is cannabis’s real impact on developing brains. “I think

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