Harvard neuroscientist issues caution about legalized cannabis edibles

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Author of the article:

Bill Kaufmann

Publishing date:

Jan 12, 2020  •  January 12, 2020  •  3 minute read  •  comment bubble18 Comments Canopy Growth unveiled the company's edible products at Hotel Arts in Calgary on Monday, December 9, 2019. Darren Makowichuk/PostmediaCanopy Growth unveiled the company’s edible products at Hotel Arts in Calgary on Monday, December 9, 2019. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

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Canadians should be wary about extending cannabis legalization into edibles and other derivatives, says a Harvard neuroscientist.

In light of the impacts of sustained THC consumption on developing brains and uncertainties over the prolonged use of more potent cannabis products, more provinces should follow the example of Quebec, which has pegged its minimum age at 21, said Dr. Jodi Gilman, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School.

Alberta has the youngest legal age to consume cannabis in the country, 18, while in all other provinces except Quebec, it’s 19.

“Twenty-one is certainly better than 18, though there’s no magic age when it’s harmless,” said Gilman, who’s also with Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Delaying as long as possible is good.”

While Gilman acknowledged cannabis consumption among underage users will remain a reality, just as it has with alcohol, a higher minimum age sends a message.

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“Let’s discourage both and understand the risks,” she said, adding she’s opposed to cannabis criminalization.

“We know so little about these (cannabis derivative) products … daily usage is what I’m concerned about.”

Gilman also pointed to people ending up in hospital emergency rooms after consuming cannabis-infused edibles.

Her home state of Massachusetts, where the legal consumption age is 21, opened its first cannabis stores in November 2018 — a month after it happened in Canada.

Even so, Gilman calls the level of regulation in areas like maximum allowed THC content in her home state and others as lacking and like “the wild West.”

She applauded the Canadian government for imposing a 10-mg THC limit for each single edible or beverage unit.

But at the same time, Gilman said the cannabis industry’s efforts to expand their market base through edibles should be viewed as increasing the likelihood of substance abuse.

Some Alberta cannabis retailers expect to be receiving inventories of edibles, beverages and other derivatives Jan. 20, though the province has indefinitely delayed the legal sale of THC vapes.

Canopy Growth unveiled the company’s edible offerings including these vape products at Hotel Arts in Calgary on Monday, December 9, 2019. Canopy Growth unveiled the company’s edible offerings including these vape products at Hotel Arts in Calgary on Monday, December 9, 2019. Photo by Darren Makowichuk /Postmedia

A University of Calgary researcher said a study of 53 U of C students aged 18-24, interviewed in focus groups, shows both legalization and the prospect of edibles has lowered the expectation of harm.

“How the delivery mechanisms changed perception is around risk,” said Dr. Charlene Elliott of the Faculties of Arts and Kinesiology.

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“It was very pronounced among the people we interviewed who said ‘I’d never try smoking or vaping but I’d try edibles.’ ”

Women were more likely to gravitate to edibles over other forms of consumption, she said.

That message of normalization has also been set by people like celebrity chefs who showcase cannabis-infused cooking, said Elliott.

“It’s become more sophisticated,” she said.

  1. In January, retailers will begin selling a host of new cannabis derivative products, including edibles, vaporizers and beverages in a second wave of legalization that the industry has dubbed cannabis 2.0.

    Cannabis edibles may present unanticipated dangers

  2. Canopy Growth unveiled the company's edible products at Hotel Arts in Calgary on Monday, December 9, 2019. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

    Alberta sellers get a sneak-peek at edible cannabis

Cannabis legalization, she added, has also appeared to lower concerns over the drug’s health impacts.

There’s a good reason for that, said Dr. Jenna Valleriani with the non-profit group National Institute of Cannabis Health and Education.

“One of the goals of legalization is to eliminate the illegal market by offering the same kinds of products while mitigating those (health) risks,” she said.

While she said legalized edibles in some jurisdictions have led to an increase in ER visits, their numbers remain small and below household cleaner poisonings.

“There is a lot of room to safely and responsibly expand the regulations and even expand the 10 mg limit but I think the cautious approach Ottawa has taken is the best way,” said Valleriani.

It’s important, she said, that Canadians understand the effects of 10 mg doses in cannabis edibles and beverages.

They’ll soon learn that the process used in infusing drinks with THC means the drug will take effect considerably sooner — within 10 to 15 minutes — than solid food.

And Valleriani said Alberta’s decision to delay the sale of cannabis vapes is a “knee-jerk” reaction to health fears surrounding the products and a mistake.

“If you remove the legal point of access, people will be using the (unregulated) illegal market,” she said. “Problems with them arose from poorly made and dangerous ingredients.”

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on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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