What Canadian Parents Need To Know About Pot Legalization

Don't be scared to have this conversation.

The Liberal Party's support of marijuana legalization is popular with younger Canadians: an NRG Research Group poll released in March found 51 per cent of Canadians overall support marijuana legalization, but that number jumps to 60 per cent in those aged 18 to 34.

With legal pot a little more than a year away, some parents might be concerned about what that means for their teens — and how the government plans to keep underaged Canadians from toking up. The same NRG poll found 59 per cent of Canadians believe cannabis legalization would increase its use by minors, even with a legal age of 18.

Wherever you stand, legalization is coming — which presents a great opportunity for parents to think about how they want to address cannabis with their kids and to start conversations.

Below are nine things parents should know about the plan to legalize marijuana, from the protection the government has included in their bills, to the particular ways that cannabis can affect adolescents and young adults.

The government is concerned: The federal government has made it clear that keeping young people from using marijuana is a priority for them. Many of the pending rules are self-described by the involved politicians as designed to keep pot out of the hands of young people, and strict penalties are planned for anybody who provides cannabis to someone under the age of majority.

The minimum age could vary by province: The federal requirement for a minimum age for legal cannabis use is 18, as laid out in the new bill, but the decision will ultimately lie with the provinces. Some may choose to go with 19 to bring the age in line with that for legal alcohol consumption, but they could make it even higher. For their part, the Canadian Public Health Association can live with a legal age of 18, says executive director Ian Culbert, though they recommended an age of 19 when consulted by the government ahead of the bill's introduction.

Impaired driving is already an issue: The federal government is making changes to existing laws around impaired driving in anticipation of marijuana legalization, but Culbert points out that this is already a concern. "Obviously, with a quarter of Canadians currently using cannabis we should be concerned about impaired driving today," he tells HuffPost Canada. It's important to include drugs, cannabis included, when discussing impaired driving with your kids and teens.

It's unclear how impairment will be determined: It's not as straightforward to test for impairment due to marijuana as it is with alcohol, which is something teens will have to keep in mind once the laws do change. "The development of a field sobriety test is going to be really crucial," Culbert says. "THC [the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis] can be present in the blood long after any effects of impairment have been mediated." Teens — and their parents! — who do smoke should pay attention to how impairment will be determined and learn how to prevent it.

The research is limited: A lot of the existing research on the effects of cannabis on adolescents is limited in scope. "The research that's been done to date, which clearly indicates more research needs to be done, has focused on early adopters of cannabis and regular, daily use," Culbert says. In other words, the research focuses on teenagers who get stoned every day. This means that findings that apply to that group — for example, those showing that heavy, regular marijuana use in adolescence correlates with memory impairment or developmental judgment — may or may not apply to teens who use pot semi-regularly or occasionally. More research is needed to find out.

But there are risks associated with heavy pot use: What we do know is that regular marijuana use between the ages of 15-18 correlates with several negative effects, in particular, effects on developmental judgment, ongoing brain issues regarding memory retention, and potentially sparking psychotic episodes in those susceptible to them. "Any kind of psychoactive substance has an impact on the development of the brain," Culbert says, and brain development continues to age 25. "If parents are seeing significant [pot] use in their children, that's a red flag."

Some kids use pot to self-medicate: Just as with alcohol or other drugs some teens (and adults, for that matter) are going to use pot to self-medicate. The legalization of cannabis doesn't mean there's no harm when it's used in this manner, or that the underlying reasons for pot use might not need investigation. Marijuana may not be addictive in the same sense that opioids are but it can be abused if a person's reasons for using it aren't healthy or their use begins to impact their daily lives. "These are all things that with legalization we'll be able to address much more openly and honestly than in the past," Culbert says. "Maintaining open communication is really crucial."

Meet kids where they are: Not all kids or teens have the same level of interest in cannabis at the same age. Some might try it quite young, others later or not at all. Some might have no interest in trying pot, others might be very interested. It's important to approach kids where they are, without judgment, Culbert says. And wherever your kid is, pay attention to any sudden or dramatic changes in their behaviour. "There can be a number of reasons why this happens, and drugs may or may not be involved," he says.

Don't just discuss weed once: The impending legalization of cannabis is a great introduction point to discussing weed with your kids — but it shouldn't be the only time you ever do. "Parents needs to be having age appropriate conversations about drugs throughout the life course, and not just starting at 15," Culbert says. You should talk about drugs (and alcohol, and sex) with your children before it's part of their lives, and keeping that conversation open and ongoing is important.