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British Columbia Health experts answer Vancouver parents’ questions about marijuana

Many parents are left wondering how to talk to their kids about marijuana – and how to answer the inevitable uncomfortable questions that will follow.

Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

As Ottawa prepares to legalize marijuana with legislation next year, parents are left wondering how to talk to their kids about the drug – and how to answer the inevitable uncomfortable questions that will follow.

Earlier this week, on the eve of Wednesday's 4/20 activities and a day before the federal Health Minister Jane Philpott sketched out the timeline for legalization, Vancouver Coastal Health held a forum for parents and young people in North Vancouver. A panel of experts discussed marijuana use among youth, addiction and potential health dangers, with a theme emerging about the need for an open dialogue – and delaying the drug's use among young people.

Here are some of the audience questions, and the answers, that followed:

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If a teen is determined to try cannabis, to what extent should a parent provide safe access?

Joy Johnson, vice-president research at Simon Fraser University who is leading a project researching marijuana in youth: "We get the same kind of question around alcohol use: Should you initiate a safe context for alcohol use? Marijuana is a little bit different, in part, because of some of the questions we've talked about today. I think before we start to talk about safe access, we have to have a conversation and find out what's motivating, think that through and open up those channels; before you make a decision like that you need to understand the context. The first thing you need to do is have a conversation."

Chris Burt, clinical director of Hollyburn Family Services: "If this is your first conversation that you're having with your teenager, you want to capitalize on this. I wish this question was about alcohol, because it's a little bit easier. The reality is that alcohol is going to be a part of their lives probably as soon as they go to university. It doesn't mean they're going to be using it, that's not what I'm suggesting, but it's going to be there and it's socially acceptable – in fact, it's socially expected. … So I appreciate the difficulty and the gravity of the question, because it's sort of saying, 'Well, if I have a conversation with my son or daughter about safely accessing marijuana, is that not me saying I support it,' and I would suggest that, 'No … it's part of helping them understand how to make healthy decisions."

What is considered an overdose on marijuana?

John Harding, fellow in addiction medicine at St. Paul's Hospital: "When someone is having negative effects, or unwanted effects, from a particular substance, we consider that to some degree on the spectrum of overdose. Negative effects for marijuana can be variable. It's not clear as an overdose from opioids."

How does the risk of addiction to marijuana compare to the risk of addiction to alcohol?

Dr. Johnson: "If you feel like you can't get through the day without it, and you need it to kind of cope, it might be considered a dependency syndrome in most circumstances and it's worth thinking about, I think especially for young people."

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Can you explain simply how the undeveloped teenage brain is different than that of an adult and why that is important when it comes to cannabis?

Dr. Harding: "During the time of development, there's a chance that it [marijuana use] can disrupt some of the development that's occurring at this time, and the development that happens last is toward the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, an area that is associated with alertness and also decision making. This is where we're seeing an affect. The more research we have, the more we know, so we believe this is why people who start using an earlier age, your brain is at an earlier stage – there's higher risk associated with starting younger, as opposed to older. That's also why we recommend more and more that if you want to use, try to delay use until a later age."

How do you know if your teenager is abusing cannabis or using it for stress relief?

Dr. Johnson: "We do know that a number of young people start to use marijuana because some of the other issues in their lives aren't being dealt with and that's all on us, that's because we aren't providing the type of supports that young people need in our schools and in our homes and in our medical systems. There are other ways to manage anxiety and stress and we need to help young people figure those things out."

Chris Burt: "If you're saying to yourself, as a teenager, 'I got to wake and bake just to get through the day,' then you're probably using it to cope. Is that the best way to be doing that? I think the better conversation is, 'How do you know when you're using it as a coping mechanism?' And if that's the case, 'How can I [as a parent] help you cope differently?'"

The questions and answers have been edited and condensed.

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