Nicole* was 13 when she began using marijuana. She said at first she smoked pot due to peer pressure, but then she realized it offered her an “escape.”
“Since I was young I’ve suffered severe social anxiety which has only gotten worse,” said Nicole said in a message to Global News.
“It has and always will be the only thing that has helped with my severe anxiety and depression.”
Nicole’s story is not unusual. A new study based on cross-country focus groups found that teens are turning to marijuana to self-medicate. But experts worry they don’t always know all the risks.
“There’s this disconnect between what the scientific research shows and the thoughts and perceptions among young people,” said Amy Porath, director of research and policy at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA).
The study also found that young people tend to think cannabis is not addictive, and think it’s OK to drive after smoking, Porath noted.
Adverse health effects
There is growing acceptance around using marijuana, for both recreational and medicinal purposes, as Canada moves to legalization. But smoking in youth carries greater, long-term risks.
“Young people are vulnerable as a group as well because of their ongoing brain development. Until about 20 to 25, their brains are still undergoing significant maturation and development,” said Porath.
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A minimum age of 18 for access to marijuana was a key recommendation of a federal task force looking at legalization.
“The later people start using cannabis … the better,” Dr. Jürgen Rehm, director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) told Global News in December.
Cannabis is often regarded as an “innocuous” drug, a 2001 report in the British Journal of Psychiatry notes. However, evidence shows it carries dependency risks and other adverse effects, “particularly among people with pre-existing psychiatric disorders.”
“People with major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are especially vulnerable in that cannabis generally provokes relapse and aggravates existing symptoms,” the report states.
Ethical concerns restrict research into pot’s effect on young people’s brains, said Mary Olmstead, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Queens University.
“You can’t bring people in, have them smoke pot when they’re 18 and give them a brain imaging study. We don’t do that, ethically,” Olmstead said.
In her work in the area, she typically urges young people to look for other ways to deal with their stress.
“Try yoga first.”
More guidance needed across the board
Medical marijuana users are usually adamant that it’s the best thing for what ails them. But the best way to effectively use pot for therapeutic purposes doesn’t necessarily get easier as you get older.
Medical marijuana user Jason*, 42, has a number of health issues including migraines and severe anxiety. The Torontonian has been on “pretty much every anti-depressant,” and in the past missed work at his job at a bank due to side effects.
Jason calls his cannabis use “a total game-changer.”
“I’ve tried all the meds — they don’t work. This one does.”
However, he said there’s a noted lack of guidance. Even with a prescription, without a person trained to recommend certain strains, dosage, and usage, Jason said “it really is self-medicating.”
“I would much rather have someone come to me and say, ‘this is how much you should use. This is how you use it,'” said Jason.
Still, he would rather experiment with cannabis than go back to pharmaceuticals.
Candi* started smoking marijuana at the age of 28 after a divorce.
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“I had such severe depression and anxiety, it manifested as chronic migraines. I started smoking to deal with the constant pain,” said Candi.
Now 36, the rural-Manitoba resident smokes three times a day, without a prescription. Her doctor said she didn’t know enough about medical marijuana to “support prescribing it.”
For now, she relies on a trusted dealer and trial-and-error.
“Some are better than others for sure, but I smoke whatever my dealer gives me,” Candi said.
Nicole, now 34, said she’s well informed about what to consume and what to avoid, thanks to the cannabis shops increasingly popping up in Toronto — and bad experiences with the wrong strains.
“Indicas give you a huge body buzz … Sativas are meant to make you relax and focus and calm,” said Nicole.
“People need to be educated because each causes a different reaction.”
*Last names have been withheld