Rachel Currie, 17, knows all too well the side effects of cannabis. She started smoking at age 12, and didn’t realize she was headed for trouble.
“I guess in the moment I had like no awareness of any effects. So it was definitely when I'd gotten sober, looking back,” said Currie, a Calgary high school student.
“I was hospitalized throughout my using for erratic behavior. I was very violent, I was super aggressive, and I wasn't rational. That was a huge thing. I was not rational at all. There was a lot of things happening in my life, that turned out to be psychosis.”
Currie says her experience with using cannabis and alcohol resulted in her mother placing her in the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre in Calgary.
“Just shy of my 15th birthday, I was forced into detox by my mother. And behind my back, my mom and my family decided to sign me up for long-term treatment here in Calgary,” said Currie.
Dr. Chris Wilkes, the section chief for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health & Addictions for Alberta Health Services explains the negative effects cannabis can have on adolescents’ developing brains.
“We often see lots of youth or adolescents who've been using, and their memory is not good,” said Wilkes. “Obviously that impacts school because you need to be able to retain and recall information.”
Wilkes, also a professor at University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, adds the second problem is a decline in motivation.
“It's bad enough if you can't remember what the schoolwork was. But if you're not interested, it's doubly difficult to succeed at school.”
Wilkes says teenagers’ developing brains are more sensitive to substances because they’re still growing. Factors like a genetic predisposition can increase your risk of developing side effects or problems from cannabis.
“The normal endocannabinoids which are available, are involved in the growth maturation and connection. Normally the normal endocannabinoids help you deal with stress and helps you sort of try and relax, and helps you to eat and to get some rest,” said Wilkes. “If you get a lot of external cannabis, you can then over excite that system and then that affects other receptors in the brain, and so the aspect of emotional regulation is compromised.”
Clarifying the cannabis myth
Wilkes says a major point of concern for him is the fact that many believe cannabis isn’t addictive because it’s natural, which he says just isn’t true.
“We know you can get addicted to your Netflix binges or your coffee, so people can easily become addicted to smoking up as a way of relaxing or dealing with stress,” said Wilkes.
Currie agrees. She says that parents may think it’s okay their children are trying cannabis because it’s deemed safer. She worries they may not realize that for some, it’s a slippery slope to developing a dependency or an addiction.
“It's like, ‘Oh but my kid's only smoking pot,’ or, ‘Oh my kid's only drinking’ or, ‘They're just experimenting,’ so [the issue is] never attacked,” said Currie.
According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Twenty-three per cent of Canadian youth reported using cannabis on a daily or near-daily basis for three months in 2015.
While Health Canada says one in six will become dependent on cannabis if they started using it as a teenager.
“They've lost the control, so there's a compulsive craving to use regardless of the consequences,” said Wilkes.“So even though you know it's going to cause a bit of trouble either at home or at school or in your relationships, you continue to use because you just need to get into that relaxed state.”
Currie says while in that state, she couldn’t see that she had a problem.
“It took me like honestly about three months into treatment when I really started like wanting to change,” said Currie. “And like being aware of what was happening and really the effects and damage that I was doing to my life.”
Even though Wilkes does not believe cannabis is a gateway drug, he observes that those who are more predisposed to developing an addiction will often start out with cannabis and alcohol. Then they may move on to other substances including crystal meth or opiates.
He says cannabis addiction can be treatable with the right resources and therapists. Wilkes mentions it’s also important for the individual with the addiction to understand the reason their dependency started in the first place.
Questions worth contemplating
For young people trying to figure out if they have a problem, Wilkes asks them to explore why they’re using cannabis.
“Are you using it to join in? Are you using it to self-medicate?”
Currie hasn’t used cannabis for seven months but continues to deal with symptoms, including mild psychosis, a memory processing disorder as well as emotional dysregulation.
“I will never be able to regain my memory from what I have lost. And I'm assuming that I don't remember about a third of my life,” said Currie. “And on top of that I struggle with school and I don't remember a lot of things. My mom has to remind me of things that are happening around me.”
Currie says she takes medication now to treat her mental health struggles and doesn’t know yet what her long-term recovery will look like.
“I'm still essentially my 11-year-old brain with processing and stuff like that. So we don't know yet. Essentially I'll be on medication, and then around 25 when my brain is fully developed, that's when we'll see fully what's changed and what hasn't changed,” said Currie. “So time will tell. I don't know for sure.”
When is the right time to try cannabis?
Wilkes believes it's important for people to educate themselves on the potential risks of cannabis, and to examine genetic predispositions to addiction, or a mental illness. He says if you do want to use cannabis, that you shouldn’t try any earlier than your early twenties or preferably age 25, when brain growth has slowed.
This is because the prefrontal cortex, which is driving judgment, impulse control and problem-solving, is still maturing.
“If you have parents who struggle with mental illness or addiction, you may not be a good candidate to use recreational cannabis or recreational alcohol,” said Wilkes. “You may have to find other ways to regulate your emotions and to celebrate life at times. But usually we will say by the time you're 25, that's a safer time to use.”
- By Sadie Johnson