Marijuana 101 for Parents

In Canada, our federal government is proceeding with legislation to legalize marijuana. This would involve implementing a system that allows for the use and sale of marijuana to adults under a system of regulation, probably similar to the way alcohol is sold. At this time, we do not know exactly what this will look like.

As parents, it is incumbent upon us to become as knowledgeable as possible about marijuana so we can offer our children informed opinions and guidelines. We can well anticipate that use among our youth will increase. We just have to look at cigarettes and alcohol. It is not difficult for kids to obtain either of these, most often getting it from their own home. The easier it is to obtain, the more kids will use it believing it is not harmful. And the more they use, the more likely it is they will end up in difficulty with substance abuse, and for some addiction.


Not Your “Woodstock Weed”

An increasing percentage of the population believes that we should legalize marijuana and that doing so would be no different than having alcohol and cigarettes legal. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that today’s marijuana is much more potent than it was just two decades ago, and in fact is a totally different drug from the “Woodstock weed” that baby boomers experienced during the 1960s and 1970s. Parents should be aware that marijuana is 5-20 times stronger than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. [1]

In the last couple of decades, the level of psychoactive substance Tetrahydrocannabinal (THC) has been manipulated by growers to intensify the “high”.  If we were talking about alcohol, this increase in intoxication potential would be like going from drinking a “lite” beer a day to consuming a dozen shots of vodka. 

Marijuana contains almost 500 compounds, 70 of which are cannabinoids. THC has the strongest psychoactive effective, and is often used to measure potency.[2] With profit maximization as their goal, it is not surprising that growers have made their product as strong as possible.

t should be noted that as the growers purposely raised the level of THC, they unknowingly lowered the level of CBD, which is the component in marijuana that appears to have the “medicinal” properties some people seek. It is also what helped temper the negative effects caused by the THC. So, while the THC (and related problems) increased, the CBD (which countered the negative problems) decreased.

espite this, proponents of legalization continue to claim it is a relatively benign drug. And, for the majority of users, smoking marijuana occasionally in the mellow company of friends does not cause any major problems. However, a minority of users will experience significant negative health ramifications, including significant loss in IQ, and poor learning outcomes, lung damage, mental illness, motor skills impairment, and addiction.


Facts to Ponder

  • Canadian youth have the highest rate of marijuana use in the developed world, and marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug among Canadians aged 15 to 24 years.[3]

  • Marijuana is an addictive drug. One in 10 people who try marijuana will become addicted to it. One in six youth who try marijuana will become addicted.[4]

  • Marijuana use directly affects the brain, specifically parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, and reaction time. These effects can last up to 28 days after abstinence from the drug.[5]

  • Marijuana acutely affects young people before age 25. Developing brains are especially susceptible to negative effects of marijuana and other drug use.[6]

  • Marijuana use is significantly linked with mental illness, especially schizophrenia and psychosis, but also depression and anxiety.[7]

  • Marijuana smoke acts as an irritant to the lungs, resulting in greater prevalence of bronchitis, cough, and phlegm production.[8] It contains 50-70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke.[9]

  • Persistent, heavy use of marijuana by adolescents reduces IQ by as much as eight points, when tested well into adulthood.[10]

  • Controlling for other possible explanations, marijuana use is linked with dropping out of school, and subsequent unemployment, social welfare dependence, and a lower self-reported quality of life than that of non-users of marijuana. [11]

  • Both immediate exposure and long-term exposure to marijuana impair driving ability; marijuana is the illicit drug most frequently reported in connection with impaired driving and accidents, including fatal accidents.[12]

  • According to the National Fatality Database, cannabis was the most common illicit drug present in fatally injured drivers from ages 15-24 in Canada between 2000 and 2010. [13]


Big Marijuana — Lessons from Big Tobacco

Before the 1900’s, tobacco was not nearly as lethal or addictive as it is today. The tobacco industry created new blends and used new curing techniques that allowed for deeper inhalation and increased delivery of nicotine to the brain. The public health effort towards tobacco came at a huge price… 50 years, millions of lives, and billions of dollars. Tobacco use costs our country at least $17 billion annually — which is about three times the amount of money our provincial and federal governments collect from today’s taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The marijuana industry has utilized techniques such as selective breeding to increase THC content while supporting the production of vapourizers that allow for deeper inhalation. The industry promotes health benefits of marijuana while also trying to appeal to certain groups, such as children, through cartoon characters and edibles. [14]


Keeping it honest with your kids

Parents can play an important role in influencing their child’s attitudes and behaviours when it comes to marijuana. The subject of marijuana use has become increasingly difficult to talk about, in part because of the conflicting information that is out there. Unfortunately, because of all the talk of marijuana having medicinal qualities and the arguments for legalization, a number of teens today do not perceive marijuana to be harmful. We know from research that as perceived risk declines, use increases.

If you are aware your teen is smoking and he or she argues with you that it is just a “natural product” and claims that it is not doing any harm, it may be worth trying to motivate them in positive ways and to get them to think about consequences. You might ask them about their goals for school and beyond, and get them to talk about how their use of marijuana might impact those goals. Keep the conversation positive and get them thinking about what is possible and how they might best focus on achieving success in the future.

Teens will often claim that they smoke marijuana because it helps them deal with their anxiety. This may well be the case for the short-term, but research reflects that long-term marijuana use makes anxiety worse. A large drug use survey of men born between 1944-1954, found that individuals who use marijuana to cope with problems are more depressed than those who do not use marijuana to cope with problems.[15]

Another consideration for parents is the fact that teens are using marijuana to mask feelings of anxiety rather than dealing with the source of those feelings. It is important that parents encourage teens to get the help they need to learn coping skills for stress and anxiety.

f you are someone who comes home from work and has a drink to relax, be prepared to have your teen question why you do this and if you are being hypocritical by questioning their use of marijuana to unwind.

uite likely your teen may well ask about your use of marijuana in the past. If they ask, then honesty is always the best policy. But the key point to make is that the strength of what you might have smoked in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or even the 90’s isn’t comparable to what is available today. As discussed, it is apples and oranges.

onsistently, connections are found between cannabis use and other drug use. These include that cannabis use precedes other illicit drug use, and that the earlier cannabis is used and the more regularly, the more likely a person is to use other illicit drugs. It’s important to note that most cannabis users do not go on to use other drugs and that experimental users are not at a great risk for other illicit drug use (only those who initiate early and use regularly).[17]

Medical marijuana users often start as recreational users. Frequently the patient rather than the doctor determines the correct dose when prescribing medical marijuana. Those who have past recreational use are more likely to choose botanical marijuana.[18]

  1. Mehmedic, Z., et al. (2010). Potency Trends of D9-THC and Other Cannabinoids in Confiscated Cannabis Preparations from 1993 to 2008. The Journal of Forensic Sciences, 55(5).

  2. McLaren, J.; Swift, W.; Dillon, P.; Allsop, S. Cannabis Potency and Contamination: A Review of The Literature. Addiction 2008, 103, 1100-1109.

  3. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. “Adolescent Marijuana Use and Its Impact on the Developing Brain.” News Release June 17, 2015.

  4. Wagner, F.A. & Anthony, J.C. (2002). From first drug use to drug dependence; developmental periods of risk for dependence upon cannabis, cocaine, and alcohol. Neuropsychopharmacology 26: 479-488. 

  5. Hall ,W. &Degenhard, L. (2009). Adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use.Lancet, 374:1383-1391

  6. Giedd. J. N. (2004). Structural magnetic resonance imaging of the adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1021, 77-85.

  7. Hall, W. (2009). The adverse health effects of cannabis use: What are they, and what are their implications for policy? International Journal of Drug Policy, 20, 458-466.

  8. Tetrault, J.M., et al. Effects of cannabis smoking on pulmonary function and respiratory complications: a systematic review. Arch Intern Med 167, 221-228 (2007).

  9. Hoffman, D.; Brunnemann, K.D.; Gori, G.B.; and Wynder, E.E.L.On the carcinogenicity of marijuana smoke. In: V.C. Runeckles, ed., Recent Advances in Phytochemistry. New York: Plenum, 1975.

  10. Meier et al. (2012). Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1206820109 PNAS August 27, 2012

  11. Fergusson, D. M. and Boden, J. M. (2008), Cannabis use and later life outcomes. Addiction, 103: 969–976.

  12. Brady JE, Li G. Trends in alcohol and other drugs detected in fatally injured drivers in the United States, 1999-010.Am J Epidemiol 2014;179:692-9.36.

  13. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse,. Young Brains On Cannabis: It’s Time To Clear The Smoke; Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics: Ottawa, 2015.

  14. Richter, K.; Levy, S. Big Marijuana — Lessons From Big Tobacco. New England Journal of Medicine 2014, 371, 399-401.

  15. Green, B.; Ritter, C. Marijuana Use And Depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 2000, 41, 40.

  16. The Impact of Marijuana Policies on Youth: Clinical, Research, and Legal Update." From the American Academy of Pediatrics | Pediatrics. Web

  17. Hall, W.; Lynskey, M. Is Cannabis A Gateway Drug? Testing Hypotheses About The Relationship Between Cannabis Use And The Use Of Other Illicit Drugs. Drug and Alcohol Review 2005, 24, 39-48.

  18. Bostwick, J. Blurred Boundaries: The Therapeutics and Politics of Medical Marijuana. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 2012, 87, 172-186.

The Power of Parents

No matter where you live these days, drugs (including alcohol) are not hard for young people to get access to. There is no question that your child will have the opportunity, should he or she choose, to use drugs. Both the opportunities and the subtle pressure to do so will increase as your child moves into higher grades. It is not easy for parents to know whether to be concerned, what kind of guidance to give their child, or how to communicate their concerns.

The fact is, kids today know more and are exposed to a greater variety of drugs that are stronger, cheaper, and easier to find than ever before. That’s why it is critical for parents to become as knowledgeable as possible. By educating yourself about the availability and dangers of drug use in your neighbourhood, you can help prevent your child from using drugs in the first place. 

It may surprise you to know that in survey after survey, kids report that their parents are the single most important influence when it comes to drugs. Teens who consistently learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs than those who don't.[1] Research over the years is clear: your influence is the most powerful and enduring in your child’s decision-making process.


Protective Factors

There are few guarantees when it comes to parenting. However, there are things parents can do to reduce the chances that their children will have problems with substances. Perhaps more importantly, there are many things parents can do to strengthen and increase their children’s likelihood of being able to cope with life’s challenges and to grow into happy, well-balanced adults. Research suggests children are less likely to get into problems as teens if they develop:

  • Self-restraint

  • A strong social support group

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Motivation to succeed


Fortunately, research has identified factors that tend to strengthen children’s resiliency to problematic behaviours. These are sometimes called protective factors. Parents can help build protective factors in children by practicing:

  • Clear and consistent boundaries and expectations

  • Closeness as a family

  • Good lines of communication

  • A peaceful home environment

  • Love and support towards children

  • Involvement and interest in activities such as arts, sports, and school performances

  • Relationships with other positive adult role models

  • Involvement in service to others

It is not a matter of being perfect or a “super parent.” It is useful to remember that no one on earth loves your child more than you do. You are probably the single strongest protective factor your child has. And it is not a matter of doing big things, as things that seem small or simple can build on the strengths of your child.


When do I start talking to my child about drugs?

Many parents wonder about when they should start discussing the dangers of drugs with their children. It is never too early to begin talking to your children about drugs. Even at a very early age you can talk about the need to be careful when it comes to taking over-the-counter and prescription medications. Take advantage of teachable moments; for example, if you see someone smoking on TV, talk about the harm it can cause.

Talking to your children about drugs should not be isolated to a single conversation. It should be a continuous conversation, communicated in an age appropriate way. Conversations with your child should reflect where you stand and what you expect, what the risks of using drugs are, and, how to respond when given an opportunity to try drugs. Here are some suggestions for when you talk to your child about drugs:

Setting the stage: Setting the stage for those times when you and your child discuss serious matters is not done all at once. Hopefully, over the years, you and your child have developed a close relationship and he or she feels comfortable talking with you, knows you well, and even expects you to talk with him or her on many matters. Your child hopefully knows of your love, concern, and belief.

Timing: The best situation in which to discuss drugs with your child is at a ‘teachable moment’: discussions may be triggered by something that happened at school, or something your child or you heard in the news. Like anything, there needs to be a readiness on the part of your child. This is usually when he or she is thinking about it or has some concerns, or is at a point where he or she is likely to be exposed to drugs in social settings. You do not have to be serious and formal. In many cases, communication is already happening naturally and throughout a variety of contexts.

Ways to open the discussion: Sometimes it is hard to know when to start the conversation – that’s why having context is important. Here are a few examples of context:

  • Current events: Maybe you have read the papers or seen in the media how many serious and costly problems are caused by drugs.

  • Ask questions: What do you and your friends think of all the gang violence we hear about in cities? What are the drugs involved? Why do some people want to use drugs?

  • Talk about their social group: Ask if they know if any kids at their school are drinking, smoking or doing drugs. What type? How do they and their friends feel about that? 

  • Share information: Discuss “did you know” information using current research about drugs found on this website.

  • Note: It is less important to talk about the details of any of these drugs than it is to share concerns as a parent about the many ways they can hurt people.


Ways to respond in a discussion: Your job is to provide guidance and direction. Trust your parental instinct to protect your child, especially when that instinct tells you not all choices are right, and that your child needs to make wise choices. You are not just a facilitator, as a parent you can also:

  • Express your trust and respect for your child.

  • Indicate that you know that using substances is common among some youth, but not for all youth.

  • Explain your concerns from an educated stance.

  • Use active listening skills to ensure your child is being heard as well.+

Talk about the right thing:

  • A small child does not need a pharmacology lesson, but they should know about things to avoid and things to talk with parents if and when they come up.

  • Talk to your child about your expectations for behaviour, and your support for dealing with situations that will begin happening soon.

  • Middle or older teens need clear direction on what parents expect, clear support for healthy choices, reinforcement of responsible behaviour, and lots of ways out of, and reasons not to be in situations involving greater temptation than they can handle.

  • Children of any age need security, safety, a sense of importance, affection, clear and reasonable expectations, and to be comfortable in the knowledge that they are loved unconditionally.


Keeping your kids drug free

If you know your child is being exposed to drugs at school and other social situations, here are some suggestions to help keep them drug free:

  • Open, two-way conversations can reinforce your child’s awareness of your family values and make the idea of drugs less appealing.

  • Practice roleplays in which your child can refuse to go along with friends without becoming a social outcast.

  • Get to know your child’s friends and invite them into your home to provide a welcoming, safe space.

  • If your teen wants to hang out at a friend’s house, get to know that friend’s parents and their rules.

  • Encourage and support your child to participate in healthy, positive activities.

  • Steer your teen away from any friends who use drugs.

  • Make sure parties they plan to attend will be drug-free and supervised by adults.

  • Set curfews and enforce them with reasonable consequences that you have discussed beforehand.

  • Sit down for dinner at least once a week and use the time to talk.

  • Let them know why you don’t want them to use drugs, and establish a clear family position on substances.

  • Be a good role model. Don’t reach for a beer the minute you come home after a tough day – it sends the message that drinking is the best way to unwind.

  • Encourage and support your child to grow their self-efficacy through sincere compliments.

If you suspect your child is experimenting with drugs, here are some thoughts for handling the situation:

  • Stay calm – do not threaten, yell, blame or use other verbal or body language tools to get the upper hand.

  • Do not get trapped in self-blame, as this is unhelpful to all.

  • Think before you speak. Take the time to think it through, talk with your spouse/partner/friend/family member/support if there is one, so you can be together on the issue.

  • Do not blow things out of proportion, but also do not underestimate the importance of talking about things to work toward solutions.

  • Avoid accusations. Ask and listen. Let your child finish talking before jumping in.

  • Listen. Listen. Listen. Acknowledge and validate the pressures and confused feelings that he or she may be experiencing.

  • Express your trust and confidence in his or her ability to act responsibly.

  • Do not be quick to respond and do not brush aside concerns or offer quick answers or judgments. Remember: at the end of the day no one on earth loves your child more than you do.

  • Be very clear in giving your expectations and the fact that everything you counsel him or her to do is out of love and concern for his or her well-being.

  • Let your child offer some concrete suggestions for ways he or she can respond the next time someone suggests using substances or going somewhere where substances or being used. Let him or her practice ways to get away from situations while saving face.

  • Take time to talk about “what a friend is.” This includes the idea that a friend: likes you as you are; wants you to be safe and happy; wants you to have his or her interests at heart – to “watch his or her back”; would not do something intentionally to hurt you; would not want you to do something that hurt you or got you into trouble.


Resources for Parents

Kids and Drugs – A Parent’s Guide to Prevention is a booklet filled with valuable information for parents. It was developed by the RCMP and Alberta Health Services.

The “Parent Talk Kit” developed by the Partnership for Drug Free Kids gives tips on what to say to your child from pre-school through to young adults when it comes to discussing a variety of scenarios related to drug use and abuse.

The Partnership for Drug Free Kids website provides tips and advice on what to say about drug prevention and drug abuse for young children through young adults.

The Interior Chemical Dependency Office website provides a wealth of information and a link for a short quiz to determine if you are enabling your loved one.

A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Underage Marijuana Use, developed by Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Social Development Research Group, was published following the legalization of marijuana for adults in Washington State.

GROWING UP DRUG FREE: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention, is a 64-page booklet produced by the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Department of Education in 2012.

Drug Free Kids Canada website has lots of information about drugs, how to protect your family and how to get help.

Check out the Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines for Youth (LRADG) developed by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, if you have a teenager who is going to parties where alcohol is available.

Make a Difference, Talk to Your Child About Alcohol, from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is geared to parents and caregivers of youth 10 to 14.


Things to Ponder:

  • 73 percent of teens report that the number one reason for using drugs is to cope with school pressure, yet only 7 percent of parents believe teens might use drugs to deal with stress. [2]

  • Families who spend more time together and foster good feelings such as support and praise are less likely to have children who have issues with drug use.[3] Even if you don’t talk directly about drugs, being there is just as important. Going to their sports events, eating dinner together, and going on day trips together are all activities that will bring you and your teen closer together.

  • It is so easy today with all the stresses and business of life, to just come home and close the door and shut out the world. However, it is important to interact with the world, especially with your child’s friend’s parents. Think of the power of community if all parents knew each other and were in communication. You don’t have to be buddies, just get to know them.

  • Research shows that kids are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules. Kids who are not regularly monitored by their parents are four times more likely to use drugs.[4]

  • Don't just leave your child's anti-drug education up to his or her school. Ask your teen what she's learned about drugs in school and then continue with that topic or introduce new topics.

No matter where you live these days, drugs (including alcohol) are not hard for young people to get access to. There is no question that your child will have the opportunity, should he or she choose, to use drugs. Both the opportunities and the subtle pressure to do so will increase as your child moves into higher grades. It is not easy for parents to know whether to be concerned, what kind of guidance to give their child, or how to communicate their concerns.

The fact is, kids today know more and are exposed to a greater variety of drugs that are stronger, cheaper, and easier to find than ever before. That’s why it is critical for parents to become as knowledgeable as possible. By educating yourself about the availability and dangers of drug use in your neighbourhood, you can help prevent your child from using drugs in the first place. 

It may surprise you to know that in survey after survey, kids report that their parents are the single most important influence when it comes to drugs. Teens who consistently learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs than those who don't.[1] Research over the years is clear: your influence is the most powerful and enduring in your child’s decision-making process.

  1. 2011 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, Teens and Parents. April 6, 2011. The Partnership at Drug Free Org. Web.

  2. National Research News Release. Partnership for Drug Free Kids. August 4, 2008

  3. Hawkins, J.; Catalano, R.; Miller, J. Risk And Protective Factors For Alcohol And Other Drug Problems In Adolescence And Early Adulthood: Implications For Substance Abuse Prevention. Psychological Bulletin 1992, 112, 64-105.

  4. Parent Tool Kit, How to Prevent Drug Use at Every Age, Partnership for Drug Free Kids. Web.


  • Blyth, D., & Roehlkepartain, E. (1993). Healthy Communities, Healthy Youth: How Communities Contribute to Positive Youth Development. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.

  • Cleveland, M.; Feinberg, M.; Bontempo, D.; Greenberg, M. The Role of Risk and Protective Factors In Substance Use Across Adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health 2008, 43, 157-164.

  • Hawkins, J.; Catalano, R.; Miller, J. Risk and Protective Factors For Alcohol and Other Drug Problems In Adolescence and Early Adulthood: Implications For Substance Abuse Prevention. Psychological Bulletin 1992, 112, 64-105.

  • Inaba, Darryl and William E. Cohen. Uppers, Downers, All Arounders: Physical and Mental Effects of Psychoactive Drugs. Ashland, Or.: CNS Publications, 2000. 251-252

  • Mangham, C. (2003). Promoting Mental Health and Resilience in British Columbia: Discussion Paper and Annotated Bibliography. Vancouver: Prevention Source BC.

  • McColl, Pamela. On Marijuana, A powerful examinations of what marijuana use means for our children, our communities, and our future. Grafton and Scratch Publisher, 2015.

  • Raphael, B. (1993). Adolescent resilience: the potential impact of personal development in schools. J Paediatr Child Health .

  • Sabet, Kevin A. Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths about Marijuana. New York, NY: Beaufort, 2013.

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Surgeon General, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Washington, DC: HHS, November 2016

  • Vakalahi, H. (2001). Adolescent substance use and family-based risk and protective factors: a literature review. Journal of Drug Education , 31 (1), 29-46

What Parents Need to Know About Drugs

Adolescence is the critical period for starting to smoke, drink, or use other drugs. This is also a critical time to reinforce the importance of educating your teen about making healthy choices. As the teenage brain is still developing, it is much more vulnerable to drugs’ harmful effects. Even relatively low levels of substance use can have disastrous consequences for teens, including accidents, violence, unsafe sexual activity, cardiac and respiratory problems, and even death.

During their high school years, most teens will have the opportunity to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana; some will have the opportunity to try harder drugs. The fact is most kids will experiment and most won’t get into trouble. Nevertheless, as a parent you need to be aware of what is out there, what the risks are, and what signs to look for if you suspect a problem. If your child shows signs of a serious problem that could lead to addiction, it is important to know how to get help for them, and for you.


Why kids use drugs

Teenagers use drugs for a variety of reasons. Some of these may include:

  • Rebellion against authority

  • Trying to fit in with a group of friends

  • Self-medicating for their anxiety, stress, or depression

  • Curiosity

  • Relief from unpleasant emotions

It is important for parents to be aware that often drug use and mental health problems go together. Teens are at risk of developing an addiction or addictive behaviors if they are exposed to chaos in the home or if parents have mental health or addiction problems.


Alcohol – still the drug of choice

Despite what you may have heard or read about illegal drugs in the news, alcohol continues to be the most widely used substance of abuse among youth. Adolescent drinking poses enormous health and safety risks. Here are a few things for parents to ponder:

  • 70% of Canadian youths reported drinking alcohol in 2012. Canadian youth first consume alcohol at an average age of 16 years of age. [1]

  • Individuals who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence compared with those who have their first drink at age 20 or older. [2]

  • Up to 30% of students report consuming five or more drinks on one occasion. [3]

  • Teens who binge drink (have more than 5 drinks one after another) has also been associated with many health problems including: heart disease, stroke, cancer, liver disease, chemical dependency, pregnancy, STDs, and alcohol poisoning.[4]

  • Children who are depressed and/or suffering from serious health conditions are at an even greater risk for binge drinking, and may be using alcohol to control their pain, or to gain social acceptability.[5]

  • A person who holds parties for minors where alcohol is present is liable for any crimes and injuries related to alcohol consumption, and may face criminal charges or be sued.[6]

If you have a teenager who is going to parties where alcohol is available, check out the “Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines for Youth” (LRADG) [7] developed by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

The guidelines suggest “there is no age at which it is considered “normal” for youth to start drinking, although the legal age to buy alcohol — a law intended to support the idea of postponed drinking — varies from 18 to 19, depending on the province. Often, the earlier an adolescent starts to drink, the more frequently he or she drinks, and the more likely he or she is to develop alcohol dependence or have future problems with alcohol. The LRADG recommends youth delay starting to drink alcohol for as long as possible.” [8]

The report goes on to say that parents “can play a large role in youths’ attitudes towards alcohol by speaking to their children about the effects and risks of drinking, and by ensuring youth are educated so they can make more responsible decisions”. Providing clear expectations about a youth’s drinking and the reasons behind these messages can influence his or her choices. As well, the direction and modelling of moderate alcohol consumption by parents can result in lower rates of alcohol-related problems among children.

“Some parents might choose to introduce their children to alcohol, and research shows that the outcome of this decision depends on the context in which it occurs. For example, parents in some cultures think it acceptable to offer their child a little wine at family dinners on special occasions, and in cultures where this is the practice the rates of alcohol-related problems are sometimes lower. However, problems with alcohol can develop when parents provide alcohol to youth without guidance or supervision. For this reason, if youth should start drinking — and it is recommended that they do not — it would be better for them to drink small amounts of alcohol in the company of their parents, if the parents demonstrate low-risk drinking.”


The family medicine cabinet

Our society is used to taking medications to make us feel better. Children see this and can develop the attitude that “pills are okay because they are medicine.” Not surprisingly club drugs like ecstasy are often made to look like pills or capsules, further perpetuating the idea that pills equal feeling better.

Did you know that psychoactive pharmaceuticals (prescription painkillers) are the third most commonly-abused substances, after alcohol and marijuana among Canadian youth? In 2015, over 80,000 Canadian teenagers used prescription drugs to get high.[9] When parents think about their kids experimenting with drugs, they probably aren’t thinking about drugs that may be found in the family medicine cabinet. Here are some facts for parents to ponder when it comes to youth prescription drug abuse:

  • Research shows that teens who abuse prescription drugs say they get them from friends, relatives, or from home. [10]

  • Prescription opioids can be just as dangerous as illegal opioid drugs such as heroin. The most commonly abused prescription drugs are as addictive as some street drugs. [11]

  • The greatest danger with prescription drugs occurs when they are used in combination, particularly with alcohol. [12]


Commonly used street drugs and what parents should know

Marijuana is the most common illegal drug used by today’s youth. In Canada, it looks like marijuana will not be illegal for much longer. For those reasons, parents should check our Marijuana 101 for Parents page to learn more about this drug.

When kids buy illegal drugs or prescription drugs illegally, the problem is that they can never be sure of what they are getting. For example, MDMA or ecstasy is often cut with other chemicals, such as caffeine, amphetamine, LSD, PMA, and ketamine. Drugs like “street oxy,” heroin, or cocaine can be cut with fentanyl, so someone could end up ingesting this dangerous substance without even knowing it. [14]

Drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, crystal meth, and heroin are not good for anyone, but are particularly bad for a preteen or teen whose body and brain are still developing. Illegal drugs can damage the brain, heart, and other important organs. [15]

Here are a few illegal drugs that parents should know about:

Fentanyl: Fentanyl has been in the news a lot of late. The problem stems from the fact it is finding its way onto our streets either through the street trade of legitimate prescription patches, through illicitly manufactured fentanyl made into pill form to look like OxyContin, or it is cut into cocaine and heroin to create a more intense high.[16] When dealers cut it into street drugs, users have no idea of the level of purity or the potency of what they take.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Typically, it is used in hospitals as analgesic or for pain management in the form of fentanyl patches.[17] In its prescription form, it is known by such names as Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®.  It works in the brain to change how the body feels and responds to pain. Like heroin, morphine, and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body's opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When opioid drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain's reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation. Opioid receptors are also found in the areas of the brain that control breathing rate. High doses of opioids, especially potent opioids such as fentanyl, can cause breathing to stop completely, which can lead to death.[18] The high potency of fentanyl greatly increases risk of overdose, especially if a person who uses drugs is unaware that a powder or pill contains fentanyl. The RCMP estimates a lethal dose of pure fentanyl to be in the realm of two milligrams for a typical adult, which is no more than a few grains of salt.[19]

Oxycodone: This is a narcotic (OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan are the most frequently used and abused) prescribed to relieve pain that is twice as potent as morphine. OxyContin is a time-release version of oxycodone that is snorted or injected. Used as a substitute for heroin, abusers use the drug to relieve pain, alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and gain euphoric effects. In 2012 the Canadian government forced the manufacturer of OxyContin to make a “tamper-resistant” version – tough to crush and therefore harder to snort or inject. Police say that virtually every pill stamped as OxyContin (CDN 80) sold on the street today actually contains fentanyl which is very cheap to manufacture and thus lucrative for drug dealers. [20]

Cocaine: There are two forms of cocaine: the white powder which can be snorted, injected, or swallowed and crack cocaine which looks like opaque crystals and makes a popping noise when smoked.[21] Within minutes of snorting, the person’s brain is flooded with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers and causes feelings of euphoria and stimulation. [22] After the effects have worn off, people find themselves having extreme cravings for that high.[23] This is because cocaine changes the reward pathway of the brain and, over time, more and more is needed to get the same effect. [24] Some people even go on cocaine binges where they take cocaine every 10-30 minutes in order to avoid the negative side effects, such as depressed mood, anxiety and a loss of energy. [25]

Besides potentially causing dependence and addiction, cocaine can have other unwanted effects. Other health effects of cocaine include:

  • Increase in heart rate and blood pressure [26]

  • Constriction of blood vessels [27]

  • Chest pain [28]

Those who binge on cocaine can also experience a “crash” in mood and energy: depression, craving, anxiety, and even paranoia.[29]

Methamphetamine: Also known as speed, uppers, meth, crystal meth, chalk, ice, glass, Christmas tree, and crank, this drug can be unpredictable, addictive, and lethal. It can be smoked, snorted, injected, or taken orally. Immediately after smoking the drug or injecting it, the user experiences an intense pleasurable rush that lasts only a few minutes. Snorting or oral ingestion produces euphoria, but not an intense rush.   

People who abuse methamphetamines feel like they don’t need to sleep and are full of energy. But with repeated use methamphetamines are very damaging to the body and brain. Chronic abuse can result in heart problems, progressive social deterioration, and psychotic symptoms (paranoia, delusions, mood disturbances).[30]

Ecstasy or MDMA: or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine produces energizing effects like the stimulant amphetamine, but also acts as a hallucinogenic similar to mescaline.[31] Made in the lab, ecstasy usually comes in the form of a colourful pill, often with cartoons and icons stamped into them. Nowadays MDMA is rarely ever pure, and sometimes pills don’t contain any MDMA at all. [32] In 2007, Health Canada found only 3% of tablets analyzed contained pure MDMA.[33] It is one of the most popular drugs when it comes to partying, often found at raves, music festivals, and dance parties for its stimulating and enhancing effects.[34]


Signs of a problem

arents naturally are concerned for their children and want to know what the signs would be of drug use. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you know your child better than most. As a parent, you probably have experienced the feeling of “just knowing” something is not right when your child has a problem or is sick.

hen it comes to drug use, many of the signs one would look for can also be signs of any number of other things, from being unwell to natural adolescent hormone and mood fluctuations. Whether or not drugs are the issue, these signs are worth looking into because they may be signals that your child is experiencing problems:

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • A lasting cough or stuffiness

  • Unusual gain or loss of weight

  • Unusual mood swings

  • Retreat or withdrawal from family or other social activities

  • Being unhappy or depressed

  • Being suspicious, anxious, defensive, or overly protective

  • Coming home late

  • Being untruthful

  • Having problems with the law

  • Being unusually sleepy

  • A drop in grades

  • Missing or skipping school

  • Stealing money or items

  • Sudden change in friends

Concerns about any of these or other things out of the ordinary can be expressed in an atmosphere of love, trust, and support. It is always best to avoid jumping to conclusions or talking while angry. While over-reacting is usually non-productive, it is important to take seriously the possibility that a child may be in or headed for trouble.

If your child admits to trying drugs stay calm and explain your concerns about drug use. If he or she comes home obviously drunk or high, don’t get angry. Send them to their room and let them know you will discuss the situation in the morning. Check on them during the night and if they show signs of being seriously ill or in danger, call 911.

You also need to set boundaries. If you think your child has a substance use problem, you can start setting limits by not allowing drinking or drug use around you. Be clear about what behavior you will and will not tolerate. Don’t be afraid to set clear rules including not to come home drunk, high, or with drugs on them, or have drugs on the premises. Remember that you love them and your goal is to keep them safe and healthy. Condemn the behaviour, not the person.


When kids become addicted

or some young people, alcohol and drug use can quickly become more than just experimenting. They are using drugs on a daily basis or they are binge using on weekends. Use can become abuse if the consequences become serious: there are family problems, they lose friends, get expelled from school, lose a job, or get into legal trouble. If they continue to use despite the consequences, there is a good chance they have become psychologically or physically dependent.  

ngoing abuse causes changes in brain chemical systems and circuits. When these brain changes occur, the individual may need more of the substance to experience the same effect (tolerance) and may experience withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not present.

If you suspect your child has slipped into drug abuse or addiction, the first thing to do is get educated yourself. Read everything you can, take a workshop such as the Heart of a Family put on by the Little House Society in Delta, join an Al Anon or Nar Anon group or meet with other parents dealing with the same issues, or meet with a counsellor. Having the knowledge, support and professional advice will help you when it comes to that difficult conversation with your child about their drug abuse and getting help for them. If your child agrees to seek help, here are some things you should know about treatment:

Treatment: In Canada we have two primary types of treatment for both residential as well as outpatient care: abstinence-based and harm reduction. Although harm reduction has its place – e.g. methadone maintenance, support for marginalized populations, specific youth programs – abstinence should be the end goal.

Treatment should be regarded as a continuum of care that involves:

  • Intervention. The individual agrees to seek help, often reluctantly.

  • Assessment. An expert in addictions undertakes a full assessment to develop an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

  • Primary Care. The individual participates in a residential treatment program (or in some cases out-patient treatment). This stage may include a detoxification period.

  • Aftercare. A supervised continuing care program of at least 24 months is necessary to protect against relapse.

Don’t stop there. Remember that agreeing to treatment is only the first step toward getting well. Your child will need your direct support and steady involvement every step of the way if he or she is to get well.

Some parents have difficulty saying no to their children, even when they are abusing themselves and their family. They are in danger of what is called “enabling”; or, making it easier for the child to continue drug use by continually allowing them to break the rules without consequences or consistent consequences. This rarely helps the child and the problem usually continues to get worse until the child gets treatment for his/her addiction.


Things to ponder

  • “Adolescent smoking, drinking, misusing prescription drugs and using illegal drugs is, by any measure, a public health problem of epidemic proportion, presenting clear and present danger to millions of teenagers and severe and expensive long-range consequences for the entire population.” [35]

  • “Parents must recognize that substance use is a real and present threat to their teens’ health, safety, and future and take steps to prevent it.” [36]

  • Prescription medicines are now the most commonly abused drugs among 12 to 13 year olds. [37]

  • Teen drug abuse plays a major role in addiction. People who do not use tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs or misuse prescription drugs before age 21 are virtually certain never to do so. [38]

  • Research shows students who drank in high school are three times more likely to begin heavy episodic drinking in college. [39]

  • “Parents must recognize that substance use is a real and present threat to their teens’ health, safety, and future and take steps to prevent it.” [40]

  • Prescription medicines are now the most commonly abused drugs among 12 to 13 year olds. [41]

  1. Youth and Alcohol, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Winter 2014. Web.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Cassandra, Raychelle. "Teen Binge Drinking: All Too Common." Psychology Today. N.p., 26 Feb. 2013. Web.

  5. Machold, Dr. Clea. "1 in 25 Canadians in Middle School Say They Binge Drink." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 12 May 2014. Web.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Youth and Alcohol, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Winter 2014. Web.

  8. Health Canada. "About Prescription Drug Abuse." 14 Apr. 2016.

  9. Ibid.

  10. "Drug Free Kids Canada." Drug Free Kids Canada. Web.

  11. Ibid.

  12. "Cough and Cold Medicine Abuse." DrugFacts: Cough and Cold Medicine Abuse | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Web.

  13. McKee, Geoff MD, Amlani, Ashraf, MPH, Buxton, Jane A., MBBS, MHSc, FRCPC. BCMJ, Vol. 57, No. 6, July, August, 2015, page(s) 235 — BC Centre for Disease Control.

  14. "Drug Free Kids Canada." Drug Free Kids Canada. Web.

  15. Gatehouse, Jonathon, and Nancy Macdonald. "Fentanyl: The King of All Opiates, and a Killer Drug Crisis." 21 Sept. 2015. Web.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Fentanyl Safety for First Responders, Fentanyl Safety. Web.

  19. "Fentanyl." DrugFacts: Fentanyl | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 03 June 2016. Web.

  20. "RCMP Releases Video on the Dangers of Fentanyl." Government of Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police., 13 Sept. 2016. Web.

  21. Stewart, Eric. "RCMP Gazette." Government of Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police., 24 June 2016. Web.

  22. Egred, M. Cocaine and The Heart. Postgraduate Medical Journal 2005, 81, 568-571.

  23. Nestler, E. Historical Review: Molecular And Cellular Mechanisms Of Opiate And Cocaine Addiction. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 2004, 25, 210-218.

  24. Carlezon Jr., W. Regulation Of Cocaine Reward By CREB. Science 1998, 282, 2272-2275.

  25. Gawin, F. Cocaine Addiction: Psychology And Neurophysiology. Science 1991, 251, 1580-1586

  26. Breiter, H.; Gollub, R.; Weisskoff, R.; Kennedy, D.; Makris, N.; Berke, J.; Goodman, J.; Kantor, H.; Gastfriend, D.; Riorden, J. et al. Acute Effects Of Cocaine On Human Brain Activity And Emotion. Neuron 1997, 19, 591-611.

  27. Kloner, R.; Hale, S.; Alker, K.; Rezkalla, S. The Effects Of Acute And Chronic Cocaine Use On The Heart. Circulation 1992, 85, 407-419.

  28. Pozner, C.; Levine, M.; Zane, R. The Cardiovascular Effects Of Cocaine. The Journal of Emergency Medicine 2005, 29, 173-178.

  29. Boys, A. Understanding Reasons For Drug Use Amongst Young People: A Functional Perspective. Health Education Research 2001, 16, 457-469.

  30. Davis, Kathleen. "Methamphetamine: Side Effects, Health Risks and Withdrawal." Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, Web.

  31. Teter, C.; Guthrie, S. A Comprehensive Review Of MDMA And GHB: Two Common Club Drugs. Pharmacotherapy 2001, 21, 1486-1513.

  32. Gahlinger, P. M. (2004). Club drugs: MDMA, gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Rohypnol, and ketamine. American Family Physician, 69(11), 2619–26. -

  33. Hudson, A.; Lalies, M.; Baker, G.; Wells, K.; Aitchison, K. Ecstasy, Legal Highs And Designer Drug Use: A Canadian Perspective. Drug Science, Policy and Law 2013, 1.

  34. Gahlinger, P. M. (2004). Club drugs: MDMA, gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Rohypnol, and ketamine. American Family Physician, 69(11), 2619–26.

  35. Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem, The National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, June 2011

  36. Ibid.

  37. SAMHSA, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. "Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings." SAMHSA, CBHSQ. Web.

  38. National Survey on American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens, The National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, August 2012

  39. Wechsler, Henry, and Toben F. Nelson. "What We Have Learned From the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study: Focusing Attention on College Student Alcohol Consumption and the Environmental Conditions That Promote It." Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 69.4 (2008): 481-90. Web.

  40. Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem, The National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, June 2011

  41. SAMHSA, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. "Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings." SAMHSA, CBHSQ. Web