Alberta government appoints expert panel to review effects of cannabis on young brains

The province has appointed a panel of experts to review research on how cannabis affects the brains of people under 25. (David Donnelly/CBC - image credit)
The province has appointed a panel of experts to review research on how cannabis affects the brains of people under 25. (David Donnelly/CBC - image credit)

The Alberta government has appointed a panel of experts from several universities to review research on how cannabis affects the brains of people under 25.

More than five years after the federal government legalized cannabis, the province says it's time to gather and assess more data on how it affects youth.

Alberta Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Dan Williams said the panel will assess the academic research and information available.

"I'm a policy-maker. I need to understand the best evidence out there," Williams told news media Monday after announcing the review.

"Now that we've had five years, we want to see the Alberta-specific context. How have we been affected, how our youth have been affected, positive or negative when it comes to the effect of cannabis."

The ministry has chosen six health experts to participate and political adviser and policy consultant Blair Gibbs.

"As cannabis products have become more widely available, we must continue to evaluate their health impacts – particularly on young people whose brains are still developing," Gibbs said in a news release.

The Alberta NDP critic for mental health and addiction, Janet Eremenko, supports the move.

"I welcome it," Eremenko said in an interview Monday.

"Science now tells us that the brain is developing until the age of 25 and drug use during that formative stage could have a really significant impact."

The province will provide a $280,000 grant for the cannabis review and anticipates the work will be complete this summer.

Panel member Dr. Sebastian Straube, a professor and division director in preventive medicine at the University of Alberta, has studied the impact of cannabis on workplace safety and road traffic collisions.

"What I'd be interested in for this project would be to see whether there is evidence or policy on the effects of cannabis with regard to those safety outcomes in young people," Straube told CBC News Monday.

He said the panel will compile existing research on the topic and look at how cannabis is treated by other jurisdictions.

"The part that my team at the University of Alberta is overseeing primarily is a jurisdictional scan which will look at how this problem of young people and cannabis use is handled in other jurisdictions," he said.

Other parts of the overall project would involve a survey of Albertans, he noted.

'Responsible path to take'

The decision to conduct a review is also getting support from industry consultants.

Ivan Ross Vrana, a managing partner with a government relations firm Diplomat Consulting, said he thinks provincial and federal governments should invest in more research.

"While we work in the cannabis space and we support the industry and are glad the product is legalized, we're always a fan of generating more research and understanding about the product because for so many years, none of that work was done."

Vrana noted that while many people use cannabis for recreation, it's also a medical product.

"I think with the legalized regime, it's a responsible path to take," he said. "We need to understand the risks along with the benefits."

Vrana also worked on developing the cannabis policy with Health Canada before legalization in 2018.

Other members on the panel are Dr. Philip Tibbo, professor in psychiatry at Dalhousie University, Dr. Charl Els from the department of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Alberta, Assist. Prof. Emily Hennessy from Harvard Medical School, Assoc. Prof.Victoria Burns, director at the University of Calgary recovery community and recovery on campus, and Dr. Ed Day, clinical reader in addiction psychiatry at the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham.

Before changing any policy, such as the legal age to purchase and consume cannabis, Eremenko said the government needs to consult organizations and the public about potential changes.