Taking the high road
The impending legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Canada – which is expected to take effect by next summer – is causing anxiety among many in the health-care profession, and for good reason.
The jury is still out on the long-term effects of marijuana use. Although many people use marijuana for chronic pain and relieving other symptoms of certain illnesses and conditions, the evidence are still largely insufficient to determine what the actual risks and implications are with long-term use – or how effective it really is in helping certain medical conditions.
Health-care practitioners are reminding the government to keep the focus on public health as the legislation rolls out. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in Canada, with almost half of Canadians having used it at least once in their lifetime.
The biggest concern about pot legalization is its consequence on young people and on their developing brain. About a third of Canadians aged 18 to 24 years report using marijuana in the past year, according to 2012 data from Statistics Canada. A New Zealand study showed that teens who heavily smoked marijuana lost an average of eight IQ points between age 13 and 38. Other studies point to a deterioration in cognitive thinking and learning among teen pot smokers.
As legalization of marijuana draws closer, front-line health-care providers will be faced with questions from patients about whether marijuana might benefit them. The true medicinal benefits of marijuana is still up for debate and it would require many more clinical trials on hundreds of thousands of human subjects before a scientifically conclusive answer can be provided.
For now, it’s incumbent upon the health-care providers to start educating themselves on this subject for the benefit of their patients. How the legislation will be implemented across jurisdictions is still unknown at this stage. One thing is certain: as marijuana gets more accessible to the public, patient education becomes even more crucial.
Health-care practitioners need to prepare and help their patients safely navigate this new paradigm of public health.
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