The Jamaican Senate recently passed the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Bill, with five amendments. It is now expected to be taken to the House of Representatives in March 2015 for it to be deliberated on. However, whilst the Bill seeks to decriminalise the possession of two ounces or less of ganja, it is unclear what concurrent provisions or safeguards have been made to keep ganja away from children and adolescents.
At most, the Bill would seem to require that if a minor is found with a small quantity of ganja, the police officer should refer that adolescent to the National Council on Drug Abuse.
Drawing a line in the sand, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently reaffirmed its opposition to any possible legalisation of marijuana, because of its harmful effects on adolescents and children. Its policy statement was published on January 26, 2015 in the journal, Pediatrics. The academy instead, supported the studying of how the effects of changes in the law have influenced the use of marijuana by adolescents in those states that have legalised it. This would lead to a better understanding of its impact, and help in defining the best policies to aid the reduction of marijuana use by adolescents.
HARM TO CHILDREN WITH EASIER ACCESS
The statement by the AAP, and the accompanying technical report, stated that children and adolescents may be harmed when adults have easier access to marijuana for medical and recreational purposes.
Research has confirmed that marijuana can be very harmful to adolescent health and development, and so making it more available to adults, even if restrictions are in place, will increase the access for teenagers. In fact, campaigns to decriminalise or legalise marijuana can have the effect of persuading teenagers that marijuana is not dangerous, which can, consequently, have a devastating impact on their lifelong health and development.
The AAP reminded that marijuana can affect memory and concentration, and interfere with learning in children and adolescents – making it harder for them to finish high school or pursue a university degree. Alterations in muscle motor control, coordination, judgement, reaction time, and tracking ability have all been researched and documented, and these may contribute to unintentional deaths and injuries among adolescents, and even adults if they drive motor vehicles while being intoxicated by marijuana.
LAWS IN THE USA
Currently, commercial sale of marijuana has been legalised in the US states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia; and decriminalised in 18 states. The dispensing of marijuana for medical purposes is legal in 23 states, and the dispensing of cannabinoids for medical reasons is permitted in 11 states, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in the USA. However, the possession of specified quantities of marijuana is still considered to be a criminal offence under federal law.
The statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics also noted its opposition to the use of medical marijuana “outside the regulatory process of the US Food and Drug Administration”, while acknowledging that “marijuana may currently be an option for cannabinoid administration in children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions, and for whom current therapies are inadequate”. Additionally, the AAP called for the decriminalisation of marijuana use, but called on paediatricians in states where marijuana sale is legal, to lobby for its closer regulation.
In those states, the AAP believes that revenue from this regulation should be used to support research on the health risks and benefits of marijuana. Those regulations should include strict penalties for those who sell marijuana or marijuana products to those younger than 21 years; education and diversion programmes for people younger than 21 years who possess marijuana; point-of-sale restrictions; and other marketing restrictions.
In addition to opposing the legalisation of marijuana, the AAP also opposes the smoking of marijuana because of the documented health effects, and urges adults not to use the drug in the presence of children.
GANJA USED AROUND CHILDREN
This warning by the AAP also has implications for children in Jamaica whose parents smoke ganja in their presence, whether for recreation or for religious purposes. Our children are likely to suffer the same harmful consequences identified by the American Academy of Pediatrics, including a more injurious impact on brain structure and function than would occur if they were adults.
So, in light of the current Bill in our Parliament to decriminalise the use of ganja, as well as the findings in North America that such moves have made it easier for adolescents to access marijuana for use despite restrictions, where does this leave us regarding the future welfare of our children and adolescents?
Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is the ethicist at the Caribbean Public Health Agency – CARPHA. (The bioethical views expressed here are not written on behalf of CARPHA)