A new study has found that marijuana-related visits by teens to a Colorado children’s hospital emergency department and its satellite urgent care centres has shot up since marijuana was legalized. The findings have prompted the study’s authors to call on state health officials to create better education and prevention strategies aimed at adolescents.
“The state-level effect of marijuana legalization on adolescent use has only begun to be evaluated,” says Dr. George Sam Wang, assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, lead author of the study, in a press release. “As our results suggest, targeted marijuana education and prevention strategies are necessary to reduce the significant public health impact of the drug can have on adolescent populations, particularly on mental health.”
The study looked at ER visits by youth aged 13 to 21 years in 2014 and determined that 631 were marijuana-related, either due to cannabis being found in the patient’s urine or from the patient telling a doctor they had used cannabis. Of that number, 442 involved a psychiatric assessment.
The 2014 total was over four times higher than that of 2005 when 106 marijuana-related visits were recorded.
Colorado legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 2010 and for recreational use in 2014. Dr. Wang says he’s concerned about changes to societal perceptions about pot. “The perception of risk has gone down quite a bit,” says Wang, to NBC News. “We know that marijuana use at a young age can affect adolescent brains.”
Other research has shown that marijuana use among Colorado teens has not significantly changed post-legalization. A study last December in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Pediatrics found the percentage of teens reporting marijuana use in the past month was statistically unchanged between the years 2010-2012 and 2013-2015. The study also found that teens’ attitudes towards marijuana’s risks, while trending towards being less likely to say that using marijuana can be harmful, were nonetheless no statistically different in Colorado compared to the national average.
“What it looks like is folks who may have been using illicitly before are using legally now and teens or youth that were using illicitly before, it’s still the same rate of illicit use,” says Dr. Larry Wolk, chief medical officer for Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, to the Canadian Press.
The impact of legalization on children and youth will be a particular area of concern in Canada as the federal government rolls out marijuana legalization, set to be in place by next summer. One of its stated reasons for the sweeping about-face on pot has been the claim that legalization will help keep drugs “out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals.”
Yet, some health experts question whether legalization will do the trick. “I don’t exactly know what they are planning to do to keep it out of the hands of young people and I think some elaboration of that might be helpful,” says Bonnie Leadbeater, psychology professor at the University of Victoria, to the Canadian Press. “It is unlikely that it will change … it has been very, very accessible to young people.”
The new research will be presented at the upcoming 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco.