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Worse mental health linked to weed use among young Canadians

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Investigators considered the impact of mental health indicators on cannabis use in grade 9 and 10 students

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Canadian researchers reviewing data from two major, made-in-Canada studies say the findings show there’s an association between mental health indicators and youth cannabis use.

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“Worse mental health was consistently associated with current and lifetime cannabis use among youth,” notes an abstract of the research paper to be published in the February edition of the International Journal of Drug Policy.

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  1. Just how legalization has influenced youth use of weed is decidedly mixed. / PHOTO BY GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

    Legalizing recreational weed has not reduced youth use as expected, Canadian study finds

  2. Image for representation. Studies show sexually diverse youth, in particular LGB youth, use more cannabis and experience more mental health challenges than their heterosexual peers. /

    Canadian study finds lesbian, gay and bisexual youth with depression more likely to increase cannabis use

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    People are increasingly turning to cannabis to treat mental health, boost productivity: Study

Investigators came to that conclusion after reviewing data from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study and the Cannabis, Obesity, Mental health, Physical activity, Alcohol, Smoking and Sedentary behaviour (COMPASS) study, both of which are large and ongoing.

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Data from 40,000-plus participants reviewed

With a view to comparing associations between youth mental health and weed use, data were collected from grade 9 and 10 students taking part in the 2017-2018 HBSC study and the 2017-2018 to 2018-2019 waves of COMPASS study. The number of participants was just shy of 40,500.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to replicate associations between youth mental health and cannabis using nationally representative cross-sectional (HBSC) and longitudinal non-representative (COMPASS) data sources,” the study notes.

“Similar associations between mental health problems and cannabis use were observed in both data sources,” authors write. “The direction, magnitude and precision of the estimates for restless sleep, loneliness, poor wellbeing and cannabis use were highly comparable across both studies.”

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With both studies indicating “replicable association between indicators of mental health and youth cannabis use,” the researchers point out the “potentially causal etiological (causing or contributing to disease development) relationships inferred from HBSC data were supported in longitudinal findings based on COMPASS.”

Cannabis use among Canadian young people highest globally

Citing 2016 figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the research paper notes that, globally, “Canadian youth have the highest prevalence and frequency, and earliest onset of cannabis use.”

A University of Toronto review published in Addiction last June, looking at young people aged 15 to 24, reiterated youth use. The review, which considered information from five academic databases, found “there are increasing concerns about the adverse effects of cannabis use on youth physical and mental health.”

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Even information from the Government of Canada, which made clear that protecting youth was one of the goals during legalization of adult-use cannabis, offers some key messages for youths between the ages of 13 and 17 (which would cover grades 9 and 10).

“The best way to protect your health is to not use cannabis,” the information states. “You are more likely to experience harms from cannabis because your brain is still developing until around the age of 25. The earlier you start using cannabis the more harm it can do.”

Weed consumption apparently not on the rise

A Canadian/Australian study published in Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry last year, however, found that several years post-legalization, “there appears to have been no marked increase in cannabis use by youth in Canada yet.”

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A Canadian review released in June 2021, which looked at COMPASS data, found ever-use of weed among students increased from 30.5 per cent in 2016-2017 to 32.4 per cent in 2018-2019. Still, “it appears that cannabis legalization has not yet been followed by pronounced changes on youth cannabis use,” it notes, but emphasizes “these data suggest that the Cannabis Act has not yet led to the reduction in youth cannabis use envisioned in its public health approach.”

Yet more Canadian research, this time released in 2020 and out of the University of Waterloo (UW) highlighted “a discrepancy between the recommendation that individuals with some mental health problems should avoid cannabis and the widespread practice of using cannabis to manage mental health.”

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A Norwegian study considering youth, cannabis use and physical health came to a somewhat similar conclusion, but as it relates to physical, not mental health. “More studies are needed to explore if there might be a bidirectional relationship between cannabis use and physical health problems where physical problems increase cannabis use and cannabis use increases the risk of physical health problems,” researchers suggested.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reported in early 2021 that a “persistent and concerning trend emerged across Canada” during the first wave of COVID-19. “We know that regular use of cannabis leads to greater health problems, addiction and other mental health disorders,” argued Tara Elton-Marshall, an independent scientist at CAMH and senior author of findings published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

Authors of the UW study in 2020 concluded, “Education and reduced stigma around using cannabis after legalization in Canada may help address users coming forwards regarding use of cannabis for mental health problems.”

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