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The Canadian Paediatric Society is urging the federal government to take steps to protect children and youth should it follow through on its plan to legalize recreational marijuana next year.Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press

The federal government must adopt a host of strict measures, including limits on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), no sales to minors and development of an evidence-based roadside test, in order to limit young peoples' exposure to cannabis once it is legalized, according to a new position statement from a national association representing Canadian pediatricians.

The statement, published Thursday by the Canadian Paediatric Society, warns that cannabis can have serious long-term consequences on developing brains and that "safeguards are necessary" to protect children and adolescents from those harms.

"There are serious consequences around using cannabis," said Dr. Christina Grant, co-author of the statement and member of the society's adolescent health committee. "We know the decisions the government makes around legalizing cannabis is going to impact children and youth."

The federal government has promised to introduce legislation to legalize cannabis some time next spring and has created a task force on how to move forward.

Grant said CPS is quite concerned about the new legislation, considering that mounting evidence shows cannabis can have serious, long-lasting health effects on young people.

Part of the problem is the widespread perception that cannabis is harmless, Dr. Grant said. But evidence clearly shows it's far from benign.

For instance, one study published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that persistent cannabis users experienced cognitive problems – particularly among those who started using cannabis during adolescence. Earlier this year, a study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found people who started using cannabis during youth had poorer cognitive skills than those who didn't use it. Another study published last year in JAMA Psychiatry found that boys who are genetically predisposed to schizophrenia and who try cannabis before age 16 experience changes in brain development.

According to a 2010 report published by the World Health Organization, Canadian youth were the top users of cannabis across 43 countries in North America and Europe. So, it's imperative that new legislation includes strict measures to limit the ability of young people to access cannabis and to educate them about the risks, Dr. Grant said.

The recommendations include:

  • Blocking all sales of cannabis products to youth under the legal age for buying tobacco and alcohol (18 or 19, depending on the province)
  • Limiting THC content in cannabis available to 18- to 25-year-olds, whose brains are still developing
  • Restricting cannabis dispensaries from operating near school zones
  • Requiring warning labels on cannabis packages about health risks
  • Restricting sale of cannabis products that appeal directly to young people, such as edibles that resemble candy
  • Extending rules already in place for tobacco to cannabis, such as banning use in public places
  • Investing in development of a roadside test that can be used to detect cannabis

CPS also says that health-care providers need to talk to patients about the risks associated with cannabis use and screen children and youth for cannabis use.

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