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Since legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado, the state has tried to warn youth about the potential negative consequences of marijuana.The Associated Press

Part of cannabis and your kids

From the archives: This article was originally published October 16, 2014

Even though teens who smoke pot are at higher risk for cognitive problems, motor-vehicle accidents and substance abuse, young Canadians see marijuana as a harmless herb.

Pot, teens say, helps them to relax, focus, drive better, be less violent and think more creatively, according to a survey by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

And while young people noted downsides such as "becoming lazy," the negative effects paled in comparison with the benefits they described. Some believed marijuana could "purify" the immune system, others said it could cure cancer.

This knowledge gap is worrisome considering that Canadian adolescents have the highest rate of cannabis use in the developed world, said Dr. Sheryl Spithoff, family physician and addictions medicine specialist at Women's College Hospital in Toronto.

In fact, young Canadians don't think of marijuana as an actual drug. They see it as a "natural" and non-addictive alternative to cigarettes, the 2013 survey found, and perceived weed as much safer than alcohol.

But research has shown that marijuana is at least as harmful as alcohol to the developing brain. And the notion that pot is non-addictive is pure myth, scientists say. More than 5 per cent of all Canadians aged 15 to 24 meet the criteria for cannabis abuse or dependence, according to data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey.

Moreover, "cannabis use and driving is highly prevalent in youth – way more prevalent now than drinking alcohol and driving," said Dr. Bernard Le Foll, a drug-addiction researcher and clinician at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Meanwhile, the medical benefits of cannabis are being touted by marijuana producers left and right. In the past year alone, dozens of illegal marijuana dispensaries have cropped up in cities such as Vancouver, selling high-grade bud and cannabis-laced cookies and candies seven days a week.

In this context, it's no wonder that Canadian youth "appear confused" about marijuana, the CCSA survey pointed out.

Experts, including Spithoff, say teens need the facts regardless of whether Canada decides to legalize recreational marijuana use.

And, Spithoff said, studies have shown a strong link between what kids perceive as the harms of a substance and their actual use of that drug.

She added that in the past, public-health campaigns designed to reduce substance use in youth have had "a lot of mixed results." Fear tactics – like the classic fried-egg commercial, "This is your brain on drugs" – tend to backfire, said Dr. Amy Porath-Waller, interim director of research and policy at the CCSA.

In focus groups, "youth didn't take those messages seriously," she said. "They want fact-based messages – messages that reflect the best evidence of the day."

Prevention efforts should reflect the everyday realities of Canadian youth and communicate the latest science on both the benefits and harms of marijuana use, the CCSA report said.

In Colorado, where recreational use has been legal since 2012, the change in marijuana's legal status has not resulted in a significant increase or decrease in teen users, according to a 2013 survey from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

But as Colorado has learned, providing youth with balanced information about the potential negative consequences of marijuana is easier said than done. The state's recent "Don't be a lab rat" campaign has drawn ridicule for presenting a study's conclusion that pot lowers IQ as hard fact, but then tempering the statement with the words: "Some dispute that study. But what if, years from now, you learn those scientists were right?"

Youth may be more receptive to receiving fact-based information from trusted figures such as a family doctor, Spithoff said, noting that studies have shown that adolescents are interested in hearing what family physicians have to say about drug use. A routine checkup could be an opportunity for doctors "to both communicate messages about substance use and inquire about it," she said.

With an aim to better informing health professionals and the public, the CCSA has put together a scientific advisory committee to clarify "what we know and don't know" about the effects of marijuana on youth, Porath-Waller said. The findings will be synthesized within the next year "so we can better equip the prevention work force in Canada," she said.

She emphasized that kids need to hear the same message about cannabis use reinforced wherever they go – in schools, community centres, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides clubs, sports groups, and at home. Parents can play a role in delivering a consistent message, "which is what the evidence suggests is most effective," Porath-Waller said.

But she added, "it's not just young people who are confused."