'No amount of cannabis is safe': Kids and pot shouldn't mix, experts warn parents

When Michelle Bilodeau needs a moment to relax after a long week, the Toronto mom doesn't reach for a beer, she uses cannabis.

Describing herself as an out and proud user, the 39-year-old recalls one time when she took too much of an edible before bathing her 22-month old daughter.

"I realized while I was giving her her bath that it was like the longest, most fun bath she'd ever had in her life, because I was just very in the moment," she told CBC Toronto, adding that she never smokes in front of her daughter, but will use CBD oil when she needs it.

'No amount of cannabis is safe for unborn children'

Bilodeau says she didn't use cannabis during her pregnancy or breastfeeding, and with just a couple weeks to go before pot becomes legal in Canada, a guide warning against using weed during pregnancy, breastfeeding and as a parent is sprouting up in some hospitals.

The pamphlet, which is distributed by the Best Start Resource Centre from Health Nexus, warns of the long-term effects of using cannabis on your fetus, baby and child at various stages of development. The guide also warns of what parents can expect if they're high around their children.

"Being high while parents can affect how you interact with your child," the guide says.

"You may miss your baby's/child's cues for hunger, to be comforted or to play and learn. Being attentive to your baby/child is important to their development."

Dr. James MacKillop, who's been studying cannabis as the director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research and the DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research in Hamilton, says there are multiple risks parents and would-be parents who use cannabis need to keep in mind.

"The reality is none of them is safe and no amount of cannabis is safe for unborn children or breastfeeding," he said.

MacKillop explains that compared to alcohol, cannabis stays in the body for much longer after consumption, being absorbed through fat cells and then leaching back into the bloodstream.

"Even if a person uses infrequently, it's possible that they could still be circulating levels of THC and other cannabinoids even when they're not using because of that long residual presence."

'Tobacco and cannabis are not identical drugs, there are ways they’re meaningfully different,' says James Mackillop, the director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research and the DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research. (Sue Reid/CBC)

Cannabis 'certainly ingested' from secondhand smoke

Despite her personal use, Bilodeau does worry about her daughter being exposed in public.

"I think it's just the same if someone was trying to smoke a cigarette around her," she said. 

"We would try to keep her away from it and have her not be around it when people are smoking it."

MacKillop says studies show that in some cases people exposed to secondhand cannabis smoke can become legally impaired if they inhale enough of it. They can also experience what is known as a "contact high."

"And that applies to children too," MacKillop said.

"Children who are around adults using cannabis heavily would be expected to have that same kind of exposure."

Earlier last week, amendments to the Smoke Free Ontario Act now prevent cannabis users from smoking within 20 metres surrounding playgrounds.

Despite this move by the provincial government to prevent exposure to children, MacKillop says it's best to minimize public use as much as possible as recreational cannabis becomes more common.

"Tobacco and cannabis are not identical drugs; there are ways they're meaningfully different."

He also says the level of THC and the level of ventilation are big factors in how second-hand smoke affects people.

"So if you're walking through a park and you smell someone using cannabis, the likelihood of any kind of negative consequences is very low," he said.

"But if you were at a party and continuously exposed to cannabis smoke in a closed room, for example, or in some other setting where there's very low ventilation, there would be a very high likelihood of ingestion of those chemical constituents of cannabis."

Calls to Ontario Poison Centre for under-19 cannabis exposure up

MacKillop also recommends making sure cannabis is locked away and out of the reach of children in the home.

He uses edibles as an example.

"Cannabis cookies or brownies may look very appetizing and they may taste delicious," he said. 

"But they may effectively be poisonous and can result in a really unpleasant set of symptoms that may not be life threatening but can still result in a child having to go to the ER department."

This guide from the Best Start Resource Centre, seen at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, advises parents on the risks of using cannabis during pregnancy, breastfeeding and parenthood. (Chris Glover/CBC)

His concern is reflected in Ontario Poison Centre (OPC) numbers as well.

From 2013 to2017, calls to the OPC for cannabis exposure for children and youth under 19 increased from 116 to 234. From the beginning of 2018 to Aug. 15, the centre took 211 of those calls.

With those numbers in mind, MacKillop says parents should regulate cannabis use in front of their kids as much as possible.

"Even though it might seem obvious, these are important messages to communicate because I think as we are entering this new era and the norms aren't known yet, and we need to be very clear about what the healthiest choices are."

But Bilodeau says she'll still use cannabis as a parent, and wants to be educate her daughter about it.

"I want to be open to her about cannabis, and sex and other drugs and social media, because i don't want there to be this stigma," she said. 

"We want to be the ones who help educate her on that stuff."

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