Baby boomers are suffering adverse events after consuming cannabis because they have no meaningful way of measuring what they are taking, according to a leading academic.
During a Penington Institute webinar on cannabis regulation around the world, associate professor at McGill University Dr Mark Ware said older Canadians are getting into difficulties with the substance due to a lack of education.
He said increasing use among people in their 50s and 60s following legalisation in 2018 “comes with its own set of risks” because they don’t always understand what it is they are taking, especially if it comes in an unfamiliar delivery format.
“They’re not necessarily smoking the products, they’re buying gummies or orals, but they aren’t very well educated on what 5mg of THC in a gummy actually does. There’s no cognitive meaning [for them].
“We understand what a shot of alcohol, a beer or a glass of wine is, [but] it’s still early days for a lot of the population that are trying cannabis.”
Ware said even users returning to the substance after taking it in their youth can get caught out, and that more education is needed so they can make informed choices.
“The answer is education,” he said. “Not just of the youth – trying to put them off using it for as long as possible – but older people who may be trying it for the first time. They need to be aware of what they’re doing. We need really good quality customer awareness.”
Another factor making it difficult to measure the impact of adult-use legalisation on public health is the lack of meaningful data on exposure, Ware added.
“We still don’t have a unified way of measuring exposure,” he said. “We don’t know what people are using on a population level. How many joints per day? What’s the potency? What kind of gummies?
“We have it with alcohol, we have it with cigarettes, epidemiologists came up with these measures and you start to see the risks associated with use. We don’t have that for cannabis yet.”
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Paul Henderson agreed there was a need for more nuanced discussions about risk and that healthcare practitioners have a role to play in reducing stigma so those conversations can take place.
He said: “So much has been amplified to ‘absolute risk’. When the answer is ‘just don’t do it’ then the chances of somebody getting into an open discussion with you are pretty small.”
Henderson said it was important for medical practitioners to talk to patients about their cannabis use – whether medicinal or recreational – to assess whether it was appropriate or not.
He added: “If they can engage in those sorts of conversations… it’s much more likely they’re going to get harm reduction at that interface compared to the more blunt and less nuanced response that many receive at the moment.”
Associate professor Shalini Arunogiri, clinical director at addiction research and education centre Turning Point, agreed the stigma around cannabis can make it difficult for people to seek help.
She added: “The impact of that stigma – and the lack of availability of services – [means] if people do have problems, they don’t know where to go for help and it might take a while for them to get into treatment.”