Home Commentary Keeping Kids and Teens Healthy and Safe: Parenting Challenges with Retail Cannabis

Keeping Kids and Teens Healthy and Safe: Parenting Challenges with Retail Cannabis

By Ann Gilbert

It has taken quite a while and many steps along the way for legal retail cannabis to finally be here in Vermont. This has been a big decision for the state. It continues to be a decision for cities and towns, as each municipality has the power to decide when to hold a vote to opt-in to allow retail cannabis in their community. Each town, too, has the opportunity to create a cannabis control commission in order to have local control in how they want cannabis to work best in their town before licenses are issued.

As we tackle this new business in our communities, we can learn from other states about how it can work best. One area that has been very helpful is learning about the public health aspects of cannabis use and best practices for addressing them, especially when it comes to keeping kids safe. 

While cannabis is legal for persons 21 and older, students have reported on the youth risk behavior survey that it has been easy or somewhat easy to obtain cannabis from family and friends. With new markets opening up, there may be an increase in the access and availability of cannabis products for youths and greater influence from seeing the advertising and normalization of sales and use. Some safety measures are in place. As an adult-use product, stores will not be able to employ or sell cannabis to anyone under the age of 21. And by Vermont law, cannabis cannot be used in any public place. This leaves individual homes as a place for cannabis use, but where does this leave the kids? 

Cannabis can affect the teenage brain, which is not fully developed until around age 25. Memory, learning, and attention can be affected and some youths are more susceptible to mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, suicide, and schizophrenia. Just like knowing about diabetes or heart disease in the family, it helps to be aware of relatives who experienced problems with substances and mental health because this can increase one’s risk. Delaying early use is key to reducing the risks of developing an addiction or dependence, especially with some of the high potency THC concentrates that are available. Health care providers are reporting cases of cyclic vomiting — also called cannabis hyperemesis syndrome — violent nausea and vomiting often as a result of frequent, long-term use, especially starting as an adolescent.

Accidental consumption by kids and pets has led to emergency department visits, and Northern New England Poison Control reports an increase in cannabis poisonings in youths. Edibles containing THC in food and beverages can look inviting when they resemble candy, cookies, snack foods, and soda. Safe storage and monitoring products in the home is important. Adults can lock up products in a medication lock bag, cash box, or medicine cabinet, and not leave them around unattended. 

The Vermont Department of Health is working with the state’s Cannabis Control Board and public health organizations to share information about the dangers of cannabis use during pregnancy and breastfeeding. THC can be harmful to the developing fetus and to infants, affecting birth weight and growth. Smoking and vaping can cause increased toxins to enter the body, can lower one’s oxygen levels, and secondhand smoke and vapors can enter the baby’s lungs. 

Parents and caregivers are encouraged to talk to their kids about cannabis, as they do with other substances such as alcohol, tobacco, prescription medications, and drugs. Parents may not think their children are listening but parents are the number one influence on their kids. ParentUPVT.org is a resource developed specifically for parents to provide tools and practical advice on being a positive influence on teens. Having conversations may be difficult at first, because teens are under so much pressure and face many challenges at this age. Parents can get educated, model responsible use, and find opportunities to talk with their children to share the knowledge that substances can have unintended consequences when used at an early age, and that they affect younger bodies and minds differently than adults. Talking and listening to teens, encouraging them to stay involved in activities, and seeking alternative long-term solutions to problems can be helpful for many years to come.

Vermonters love activities such as skiing, snowboarding, and mountain biking, and kids wear helmets every day to protect their brains. Let’s keep those brains firing while we find a balance between cannabis business and keeping youths safe through healthy practices and prevention strategies. 

Ann Gilbert is the director of Central Vermont New Directions, the prevention organization serving Washington County with funding from the Vermont Department of Health’s Regional Prevention Partnership grant to promote ParentUpVT.org and encourage healthy behavior and decreased substance use among youths in Central Vermont.