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Talking pot with youth

Cathy Dobson Charlene Mahon, psychology prof and mother of five, gets increasingly animated as she talks about young people and pot.
A resident celebrates the legalization of marijuana by lighting up a joint in downtown Sarnia on Oct. 17. Troy Shantz

Cathy Dobson 

Charlene Mahon, psychology prof and mother of five, gets increasingly animated as she talks about young people and pot.

Damage can be avoided, lives can be saved if parents are well-informed about cannabis use and have open dialogue with their teens, said Mahon, keynote speaker at a recent forum hosted by Lambton Public Health.

Charlene Mahon

“The bottom line is you want them to make informed decisions,” she told about 100 parents and youth workers at the Lambton College Event Centre.

“This is not a conversation you can bluff. You want to have your facts straight.”

Cannabis may be legal for adults in Canada but it is still illegal for anyone under the age of 19.

Like alcohol, cannabis can be abused and there are certain facts that teens need to know, said Mahon.

The later a teen tries cannabis the better, she said. Research shows that 25% of Canadians aged 15-24 use cannabis and believe it’s a lower risk than other drugs and alcohol.

However, research also shows the brain develops until age 25. Early cannabis use can affect cognition, memory and attention.

“It disables the brain’s ability to do deeper level processing for longterm retrieval,” said Mahon. Even intermittent recreational use can impair memory and the ability to make good decisions.

“Those decisions might be about how close to the next vehicle they should be when driving or how fast they should go.”

She said she believes one of the reasons the Liberal government legalized marijuana was to regulate THC levels, the psychoactive ingredient that creates the high.

There’s no way of knowing THC levels of products purchased on the black market. High THC levels can cause high anxiety, paranoia and even mental illness, especially if there is a family history of psychosis.

THC levels in marijuana purchased legally online in Ontario vary in strength from 5% - 20%, a more “reasonable” level that creates a high without more serious side effects, according to Mahon.

The forum also included a group of panelists who weighed in on what kids need to know about weed.

While teens and young adults generally won’t drink and drive, many believe that ingesting cannabis and driving is okay, said Sarnia Police Const. Ron Szabo.

Sarnia Police Const. Ron Szabo

“In my opinion, there is no length of time you can smoke before driving. There are too many variables involved,” he said. “I go with zero consumption with driving.

“If you use, do not drive.”

Szabo said, as of press time, Sarnia police have not laid a single charge related to driving under the influence of cannabis since it was legalized Oct. 17.

“For police, nothing changed. We still do field sobriety tests and you will be charged if you are impaired by alcohol or cannabis, just as you always have,” he said.

Edibles, like illegal brownies or candy laced with marijuana, concern the police because they often have a delayed effect and no one can be certain how much THC is in an edible.

“You don’t want to play that game,” Szabo warned. “Cannabis use makes you four times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident.”

Tim Heath, manager of client services at the local Canadian Mental Health Association, told the forum that it is a myth that cannabis is not addictive.

Heavy use can lead to addiction, he said.

“And if there’s a history of mental health in your family, marijuana can increase the risk of those kinds of problems.”

Panelists also included professionals from Rebound, The Hub, London Health Sciences, and Western University. The forum was repeated twice in one day and sold out.

How to talk to youth about pot – Tips from local experts

-         Don’t be judgmental. Remain open to hearing their perspective

-         Talk with them, not at them. Invite questions

-         Warn against dangerous methods of consumption that increase THC levels

-         Warn against synthetic cannabis use and mixing alcohol with pot

-         Don’t become accusatory; create a safe space where youth feel comfortable to talk about their real experiences and concerns

-         Correct information means better informed decisions. It doesn’t mean you are advocating or encouraging drug use. 

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