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What Are the Benefits & Side-Effects of Medical Cannabis for Children?

The idea of using cannabis as a medication for children is still an unconventional option for parents and doctors alike. For many, cannabis is seen as a recreational tool, and nothing more. However, as we have learned over the past several years, cannabis has been useful for many debilitating or life-threatening conditions, including childhood epilepsy, cancer, autism, and attention deficit disorder/ attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). Here’s more on why cannabis could be a useful medication for children, and what side-effects it can have.

Legal cannabis (marijuana) product in Denver, Colorado. Cannabis in a pot.
Cannabis is generally best kept away from children, unless they have an MMJ card, a caregiver, and a special need for it! Author: Cannabis Tours. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Legal_cannabis_(marijuana)_product_in_Denver,_Colorado.jpg. CC BY-SA 4.0.

 

Download Free Guide to Pediatrics and Medical Marijuana + Bonus Dosing Guide

Why is Cannabis Potentially So Useful as a Medicine for Children?

There is one excellent benefit to cannabis that doesn’t exist for most pharmaceutical drugs, which is that you cannot overdose on it. Even Tylenol and ibuprofen have cases of deadly overdose, whereas there is no case of a death via overdose on cannabis alone. This means that cannabis has an excellent safety profile.

One of the reasons why so many people are wary of the idea of cannabis for children is because of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is psychoactive. However, cannabis contains hundreds of cannabinoids, many of which are not intoxicating and are medically useful, such as cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabichromene (CBC). These cannabinoids have been useful for the treatment of epilepsy and cancer, and there is even the CBD-based Epidiolex available on prescription. This is a positive sign that the stigma around cannabis and children may be lessening.

Although it is generally wise to avoid using psychoactive substances like THC and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) for children, we should be aware that even low doses of psychoactive cannabinoids can be useful for treating chronic pain and nausea/vomiting associated with treatments like chemotherapy. These cannabinoids could be an excellent alternative to opioid-based painkillers, which are also sometimes prescribed to children. If we are willing to accept such addictive substances to be prescribed to children, why not cannabis?

What Effect Does Medical Marijuana Have on Children?

This depends very much on what cannabinoids are needed. As with adults, children are going to feel the psychoactive effects of THC if they use it. Moreover, children are more sensitive to THC, so are likely to feel its psychoactive effects more keenly at a lower dosage. Short-term effects of THC include:

  • Relaxed
  • Lethargy
  • Decrease in short-term memory recall
  • Increased desire for food (the “munchies”)
  • An increase in anxiety and paranoia if too much is taken
  • Although THC has nausea-beating properties, some may feel nauseous if they take too much

When it comes to THC, it is best if children and young people avoid it, or use it in very small, therapeutic, non-psychoactive doses for health problems like cancer and chronic pain.

When it comes to the non-intoxicating cannabinoids like CBD, they are unlikely to have any deleterious effect on a child, as they do not bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain (CB1 receptors). These cannabinoids can also be used to mitigate some of the negative effects of THC as well, so can be doubly useful in cases where THC may be needed.

If medical marijuana is used properly, the child will hopefully feel nothing other than being symptom-free!

MRI image of a child's brain.
Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) of a supratentorial atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor (ATRT) in a young child. Author: Marvin 101. CC BY-SA 3.0. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ATRT-MRI.jpg.

 

Does Cannabis Have a Negative Effect on a Child’s Brain?

When it comes to psychoactive cannabinoids, then yes, they can potentially be harmful for children if used regularly. This is because the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is involved in brain development, and adding any extra cannabinoids can potentially alter brain function to some extent. This can include diminished memory, an increase in irritability, and an increased likelihood of suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health problems later in life.

When it comes to non-intoxicating cannabinoids like CBD, they are not likely to affect brain development in any major way, as they do not bind to cells in the brain. Although there is little information on the long-term effects of cannabinoids like CBD, CBC, CBG etc., it is unlikely that they would interfere with brain function or development!

A one-off THC experience is unlikely to be harmful for most children, and it should also be realized that THC can be used therapeutically if utilized appropriately. In this sense, cannabis is just like any other medication, in that it can have both pros and cons.

Positives and Benefits of Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids for Children

  • Cannabis is far better tolerated by the human body compared to other drugs, with no case of a deadly overdose when used on its own.
  • Psychoactive cannabinoids needn’t be used – CBD, CBC and CBG could all be useful.
  • Can reduce the number of seizures associated with epilepsy, hydrocephalus and autism.
  • An alternative to sedatives and opioid-based painkillers, which are addictive.
  • Can reduce anxiety when dosed properly.

Negative Side-Effects of Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids for Children

  • Too much THC can have a negative effect on the developing brain, in particular mood and memory.
  • Too much THC can be overwhelming and increase anxiety for some, which can be a problem, especially for conditions like autism and epilepsy.
  • Children are particularly sensitive to psychoactive cannabinoids, so care must be taken with regards to dosage if THC or THCV is needed.

How Suitable is Medical Marijuana for Children?

Medical marijuana is just like any other medication, in that it is useful in some instances in certain dosages, or not useful. On some occasions, cannabis may be harmful, again just like any other medicine.

Where cannabis comes into its own is how well-tolerated natural cannabinoids are by the human body, which breaks down THC and other cannabinoids so fast that dangerous levels aren’t built up, making a deadly overdose almost impossible. There’s also the fact that cannabis contains many non-psychoactive compounds that can be medically useful.

Download Free Guide to Pediatrics and Medical Marijuana + Bonus Dosing Guide

In this sense, cannabis is an ideal medication for children, and getting a medical marijuana card for your child is a great idea if they are unfortunate enough to suffer from a condition that requires one. If you think your child would benefit from medical cannabis, get in touch with Leafwell today!

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Written by
Black & White Photo of Dr. Lewis Jassey, Medical Director & Pediatrician at Leafwell
Dr. Lewis Jassey - Medical Director - Pediatric Medicine

Dr. Lewis Jassey has been a pediatrician over the last 25 years, run a practice of 15,000 patients, and been on staff at five major hospitals for over two decades. Dr. Jassey has carved a niche for himself successfully working with patients on the spectrum, as well as patients with a variety of mental health issues. He lectures on a national level, with expertise in pharmacogenetics and pharmacology.

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