How to reduce the risks if you choose cannabis

It's now legal in Canada, but cannabis is still a potent drug that needs to be taken seriously and used with caution, say U of A experts.

Cannabis is now legal, but it still needs to be used with caution, University of Alberta health experts warn.

"It's important to understand that just because something is legalized, that does not mean it's healthy and can be used without concern," said Kevin Friese, assistant dean of students for health and wellness.

Legalization has likely reduced the risk of consuming tainted cannabis or illegal, highly potent synthetic forms, and helps control illicit sales to underaged youth, but what's for sale still comes with health risks, he said.

Whether students, staff and the general public are using cannabis in the four designated outdoor areas on the U of A's north campus or anywhere else, they need to be mindful of its health effects. "It's not a benign substance, but a drug that needs to be treated with respect and concern when someone is going to consume."

Young people under the age of 25, pregnant women, those with asthma or other breathing-related problems, and those with mental health concerns shouldn't use it at all, he said, and people experimenting with cannabis should do a couple of things to ensure their safety.

"First, do your research. Look at what you are purchasing and buy it from a reputable, licensed seller. Ask the retailer for information." Consumers have the option to choose from cannabis being sold in different strengths and forms, for instance.

Secondly, if you do use, reduce your chances of harm. Don't be alone when using pot. "This is the same advice we give to individuals drinking alcohol. Make sure you've got someone there who is not impaired, who can monitor you." And be in a safe place to reduce hazards in case of impairment. "You don't want to be stumbling into traffic or driving."

Abstinence is the ultimate safety measure, Friese noted. "The only way to completely avoid the health risks of cannabis is to not use it at all."

Young people, including post-secondary students, may feel especially pressured to use pot for social acceptance, but in reality, that's not the case. The U of A's 2016 National College Health Assessment survey showed that while 79 per cent of students thought their peers had used cannabis within the previous 30 days, the actual rate of use was only 10 per cent. "The reality is, very few of them were using it. You don't need to feel pressured to use it in order to fit in."

But if you plan to use cannabis, keep these recommendations in mind, along with others from Canada's Lower Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines:

Delay using pot until later in life.

It is illegal for anyone under 18 to use it, but it's suggested to delay use until at least age 25, to avoid affecting brain development and to lessen the impact of other risks like smoking.

"That doesn't mean the health risks are gone after that age; they just tend to be lower," Friese noted.

Don't use synthetic cannabinoids.

These man-made, black market products are not only illegal, but also far more potent than what's offered in the retail market. "They come with much higher risk factors like irregular heartbeat, and have been linked to overdose deaths," Friese said.

Avoid smoking burnt cannabis.

It brings some of the same carcinogens into the lungs as smoking tobacco. Instead, choose safer ways of using, such as essential oils that can be ingested.

Avoid daily or near-daily use.

"There's a myth that cannabis is not addictive, but it has been shown to have addictive qualities. The more you use it, the more risk there is for growing dependency, known as cannabis use disorder," said Friese.

Those at risk for mental illness problems should consider avoiding cannabis altogether, as it has been known to trigger psychosis in rare cases.

Don't drive while high.

Don't operate a vehicle or other machinery right after using cannabis "or while you still feel its effects in any way," said professor Cameron Wild of the U of A's School of Public Health. Generally, the drowsiness, poorer short-term memory and shorter attention span brought on by its use kick in after 30 minutes and are felt for about two hours, but can linger for up to six hours, depending on several factors, Wild noted. Nor should people combine alcohol and cannabis use. Legal thresholds for drug-impaired driving have been set by the Government of Canada.

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