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“There’s that skunk smell again,” said nine-year-old Jane as she walked to dance class with her dad through their Toronto neighbourhood. Since cannabis was legalized in Canada last fall, the unmistakable scent has been much more noticeable when they’re out and about, says Jane’s dad, Hugh Scholey. “I said, ‘Well, that’s not actually skunk,’ which led to the logical questions of ‘What is it, then?’ and ‘It smells terrible—why would someone want to do that?’”
While school-aged kids definitely have a greater exposure to alcohol, they do tend to see a lot more cannabis now than just the odd rerun of That ’70s Show. With legalization, seeing a YouTube banner ad, a lineup at a newly opened cannabis store or a neighbour smoking a joint on their front steps is increasingly common. So should you hope they don’t notice (or ask), or should you proactively raise the topic with your kids?
“Parents absolutely should be talking to school-aged kids about cannabis,” says Ruth Cordukes, a public health nurse in Waterloo, Ont. “This is an age when it’s so easy to have these conversations. They’re not actively using it, so they’re not feeling any judgment. It’s more about answering curiosity. It’s a great opportunity for parents to tell youth what they, as parents, think before the child is actually faced with choices.”
Cordukes recommends following your child’s lead (such as talking about the skunk smell) and using age-appropriate language, like, “It’s a plant you eat or smoke, and it changes how you feel. Some people use it for medicine. You should only use it if you’re an adult.” And keep an eye on your tone as you have the chat, she says. “Don’t present this as a really intense thing, because then they’ll remember their parents were anxious. You want a relaxed, easygoing conversation so your child knows it’s OK to talk about this.” And if you don’t know something, don’t fake it. Just say, “That’s a good question. Let’s look it up.”
Scholey says he and his wife, Nicole, didn’t rehearse what they were going to say about cannabis but talked with Jane when there were natural openings, starting when she was around seven years old. For example, when the family heard lots of talk about legalization on morning radio or an extended family member started using medical cannabis to manage chronic pain, they talked about what was going on.
Jay Rosenthal, founder of Business of Cannabis, a Toronto-based cannabis industry news and analysis firm, acknowledges how tricky the cannabis talk can be, especially now that it’s gone from strictly banned to widely available. “It was much easier to say, ‘It’s illegal—don’t do it,’” he says. “Now that it’s legal, ‘Don’t do it until you’re 19’ is a much cloudier situation.”
He talks about cannabis with his kids—Cy, 5, and Stella, 9—he tells them it’s something adults use responsibly, for medicine or to relax. He encourages them to ask questions and asks them questions, too: “What do you know? What did you hear about it?” (When his kids saw him on a breakfast news show, for example, the hosts were using the terms “pot” and “weed,” and they didn’t know what that meant.) Rosenthal and his wife also believe the conversation should be continual. “I think whether it’s cannabis or alcohol or sex, it’s not one conversation. It has to be ongoing,” he says. “There’s a conversation to have with a five-year-old, which is not what you would have with a nine-year-old or a 13-year-old. You need to talk with your kids in an ongoing and dynamic way because their understanding will keep changing.”
Scholey agrees. “You want to arm your kids with knowledge and teach them what you think is good judgment,” he says, “and between those two things, you hope they make a good decision when they go out into the world.
A strong-smelling green plant, cannabis itself isn’t particularly appealing to young children. The real trouble is when it’s infused into kid-friendly foods, like gummies, brownies, cookies, lollipops or chocolate bars. Known as edibles, these products aren’t legal to purchase in Canada yet, but some people are making them at home or buying them illegally from the US. If you have them in your home, keep them in a locked box. If your child does eat or drink a cannabis product, call your poison control hotline.
In June 2019, the Canadian Paediatric Society released preliminary study results that showed between September and October 2018, 16 cases of serious adverse events involving recreational cannabis were reported in Canada. Of those, almost two-thirds were due to accidental ingestion by young children of cannabis belonging to a parent or caregiver. "The number of cases involving young children is striking," says Christina Grant, one of the study's researchers and a paediatrician in Hamilton, Ont. "These early results highlight the urgency of prioritizing the needs of children and youth in policy and education initiatives, especially as edibles become legalized later this year." Last February, the Canadian Paediatric Society recommended to Health Canada that any product resembling candy/sweets or appealing to children be prohibited, and that packaging include warnings about known and potential harms to young children and fetuses from cannabis exposure.