Not every age group reacts to cannabis the same way — in fact, youth and seniors have unique needs for safe consumption and may even feel the effects differently than other age groups.
Cannabis and youth
Next to alcohol and tobacco, cannabis is the substance most commonly consumption. The legal age for cannabis consumption in Ontario is 19, though people ages 14 to 25 consume cannabis two to three times more than those over 25. Youth consume cannabis for many reasons, ranging from peer pressure to stress relief. This age group may be particularly susceptible to adverse mental and physical effects, but abstinence-based messaging is unlikely to deter them. Encouraging an open dialogue at a young age can be more effective Fear-based messaging will not resonate with youth. Ensure that the information you provide is meaningful and rooted in fact, not emotion.
Cannabis consumption doesn’t immediately leap from abstinent to problematic. Many young people are coming of age in a post-prohibition world where cannabis is legal. For youth, shame-based messaging isn’t effective or realistic. Instead, the keys to educating youth about cannabis are accurate information, health literacy, risk awareness and access to resources that help develop decision-making skills.
Access to evidence-backed, non-judgmental information arms youth with practical tips that may help them delay their initial cannabis consumption, minimize the frequency of consumption, encourage the consumption of lower doses and, most importantly, reach out with questions and keep the lines of communication open.
Potential mental and physical effects of consuming cannabis underage
Signs of problmatic consumption:
- Changes in mood, sleep habits, appetite
- Feeling unable to control or cut down consumption
Giving up activities one used to enjoy
Changing friend groups or having difficulties with friends and family
Ignoring responsibilities at home or school
Being secretive or dishonest
Cannabis affects people differently based on their age, the product, even the circumstances. For some, effects can be relaxing and enjoyable. For others, it can heighten anxiety or cause fatigue.
Common effects of cannabis:
- Heightened sensory perception
- Appetite stimulation
- Altered perception of time
- Improved sleep
Approximately one in four people who consume cannabis will experience adverse physical effects. Symptoms tend to reach their peak around two hours after consumption but can last from eight to 24 hours, depending on the dose and product format.
- Dry mouth
- Trouble concentrating
- Decreased coordination
- Decreased interest
- Increased heart rate and/or palpitations
Growing evidence suggests the developing brain may be especially vulnerable to the effects of cannabis. The risk for younger people can increase with early, regular consumption (defined as weekly or more frequent cannabis use over a period of months to years) and prolonged consumption.
Cannabis and the brain:
In the short term, it can impair concentration, motor skills and short-term memory. Over the long term, cannabis can affect learning, lead to cannabis-use disorder and increase the risk of developing mental-health disorders. Read more about cannabis and your brain.
For those who began consuming cannabis as teens, one in six are at risk of developing a cannabis-use disorder. Dependence among young people is triggered by heavy use (defined as daily or more frequent consumption). Read more about cannabis consumption and cannabis-use disorder.
Because cannabis is intoxicating, and it’s hard to predict how long its effects will last, youth are encouraged to plan ahead and arrange a ride home after consuming it. In Ontario, the law mandates zero tolerance for drivers under age 21, meaning no THC in their blood while driving. Read more about cannabis and driving.
While more research is needed, it’s believed there is an association between frequent cannabis use and some mental-health disorders. Read more about cannabis and mental health.
Advice for speaking with youth about cannabis
As a trusted adult, it’s hard to know how to engage in meaningful conversations about cannabis with the young people in your life. These strategies can help you create an open channel for discussion.
Research shows that discussions are more likely to be helpful if they start before a young person tries cannabis for the first time (which commonly happens at age 14). Providing youth with evidence-based information about the risks of cannabis — without judgment — is the best way to help them make healthy, safe choices.
- Start young.
- Talk frequently and openly.
- Provide balanced information.
- Be aware of bias.
- Engage in a two-way conversation.
- Provide factual information.
If they’ve already been consuming cannabis for a while, talk to them about ways to reduce risk, such as avoiding high-potency THC cultivars and formats (like extracts), choosing safer methods of consumption (such as ingestion rather than smoking).
Cannabis and seniors
Cannabis use among seniors is growing. A number of seniors are trying cannabis for the first time, or for the first time in decades. While legal cannabis is safe and reliable, seniors are most likely to experience adverse effects because of their age, possible health issues and medication interactions.
Are you a senior consuming cannabis for the first time (or the first time in a while)?
Whether you’re a total newbie to cannabis or you haven’t dabbled in decades, there are ways to reduce possible risks and steer towards a positive experience. Seniors came of age in a prohibition era, making education and legal access important entry points for those trying cannabis for the first time. Fact-based information and product education will empower seniors to make risk-informed choices about cannabis consumption.
If you used cannabis in your youth, it is important to know the effects might feel stronger than they did in the past as THC levels are higher in today’s cannabis products. From 1960 – 1980, the THC content in cannabis was approximately 2%, this is a vast difference from today’s potency, which can reach upwards of 30%. To reduce risk and increase enjoyment, seniors should pay attention to product potency, onset times, the variety of formats available to them and should consider their own pre-existing health conditions.
Different cannabis formats can take effect over different amounts of time, so it is important for seniors to know how different products will affect their experience.
- Inhalation: Dried cannabis and concentrates can be smoked or vaped. Their effects are felt within seconds or a few minutes and can last six hours or more. Products consumed by inhalation include pre-rolls, milled flower, whole flower, kief, hash, rosin, shatter and more.
- Ingestion: Edible cannabis products are consumed by eating and drinking. They can take effect in up to four hours and last 12 hours or more. These products include oils, capsules, oral sprays, soft chews, beverages, chocolate, baked goods, drink mixes, condiments and more.
- Topical: Topicals are cannabis products that are applied to the skin. These can include balms, bath bombs, lotions, gels, skin-care items and patches. Topical application doesn’t make you high (even if THC is present), though you may feel some effects in a localized area. Effects are felt within 15-30 minutes.
Potential mental and physical effects of cannabis on seniors
Seniors, like youth, are at risk of cannabis-use disorder, impaired driving and mental-health disorders. However, adults over 55 face additional risks due to their age, health and possible pharmaceutical interactions.
In addition to recognizing the more potent products, seniors need to be aware of how their bodies process THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. For example:
- Lower liver and kidney function can affect how cannabis is cleared from the body.
- Existing symptoms of poor lung health can be exacerbated by smoking or vaping cannabis.
- THC impairment can increase the risk of falls or injuries.
- Smoking cannabis can increase heart rate and blood pressure, putting seniors at risk of stroke, heart attack and other cardiac events.
- Using cannabis to cope with mental-health issues can make them worse.
There are a number of medications that have known interactions with cannabis, these can include:
- Pain medications
- Heart medications and blood thinners
- Sleeping pills
- Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications
- Antibiotic and antifungal medications
- Allergy, cold and flu medications
- Heartburn medications
- Anti-seizure medications
- Drugs to treat HIV/AIDS
- ADHD medications
Cannabis can affect how other medications work, which is why it’s important to talk to your health-care provider or pharmacist about possible risks or interactions.
Speaking to seniors about cannabis and responsible consumption
As a caregiver, talking to your elders about their cannabis consumption may feel uncomfortable, but it’s an important part of keeping them safe and making sure they understand today’s legal cannabis products. With seniors trying cannabis in increasing numbers, there are simple tips for making sure they have a safe experience and feel confident making decisions for themselves:
- Be cautious and go slowly when trying cannabis over age 55.
- Choose cannabis products with lower amounts of THC and equal or higher amounts of CBD.
- Choose alternative consumption methods to smoking cannabis
- Avoid mixing cannabis with other substances, like tobacco and alcohol.
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about interactions between your medication and cannabis.
Harm reduction for cannabis consumption at any age
- Start low, go slow: This means starting with the lowest dose possible and waiting until the effects are felt before deciding to consume more.
- Consider appropriate time and place: Judging when and where it’s appropriate to use cannabis is part of consuming it responsibly. For example, consuming cannabis before school could affect attention span and short-term memory, and therefore would not be appropriate.
- Choose less risky products: Avoiding high-potency cannabis products such as cannabis extracts can help reduce discomfort or potential harm.
- Choose safer consumption: While smoking cannabis is the most common method of consumption, it also poses more health risks than other methods. Using a vaporizer or consuming edibles can mitigate some of the risks of smoking. Learn more about different methods of cannabis consumption.
- If you do smoke, use safer smoking methods: There’s no need to inhale deeply or hold cannabis smoke in your lungs; it’s a myth that doing so intensifies the effects. Most of the THC in cannabis smoke is absorbed within the first few seconds of inhaling. Holding it in can increase how much toxic particle matter the body absorbs.
- Keep amounts and frequency of consumption low: There are greater health risks associated with daily consumption, so saving it for weekends or limiting it to a couple of days per week is recommended. Consuming lower doses also helps reduce harm.
- Choose plant products over synthetics: Synthetic, lab-made cannabis products such as “spice” or “K2” are associated with severe health issues. Stick to natural cannabis.
- Consume only one substance: Mixing cannabis with alcohol or tobacco can heighten impairment (leading to side effects such as vomiting and dizziness) and increase the health and safety risks associated with each substance.
- Have a safe transportation plan: It is unsafe and illegal to drive after consuming cannabis. Wait at least six hours before getting behind the wheel, and avoid getting in a car with anyone who has recently consumed cannabis. Use public transit or a taxi, or ask for a ride.
- Consider any other risk factors, such as health history: Those who are already vulnerable to anxiety or depression or have a family history of substance abuse face an increased risk of cannabis-related health issues.