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RACSB: Cannabis is a Danger to Growing Brains

Jun 12, 2023 06:00AM ● By Emily Freehling

RACSB provides important guidance for parents


As cannabis laws in Virginia and other states have been relaxed, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that cannabis use is on the rise among all adult age groups and pregnant women, despite the fact that cannabis use poses serious risks. Adults ages 18-25 have the highest rate of use.

There is no safe level of cannabis use around children and adolescents. On behalf of the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board (RACSB), Kristin Wenger, education coordinator for the Blue Ridge Poison Center, shares important information about the dangers that cannabis products pose to children, adolescents and young adults.

The use and possession of cannabis and cannabis-related products remains illegal for anyone under the age of 21. In addition, the purchase, possession and use of any tobacco, nicotine vapor or alternative tobacco product is illegal for anyone under age 21. Cannabis remains illegal for all ages at the federal level.
Q: What trends are you seeing regarding cannabis-related products and children?

Kristin Wenger: Poison centers, emergency departments and health care providers across the country are seeing a rise in all kinds of cannabis-related problems. Some of the most concerning problems involve children. One of the reasons there have been skyrocketing numbers of children getting into cannabis products is because of the booming edibles industry. Edibles are not well-regulated. There is no guarantee that any product that you purchase actually contains what its label says. Nor is there any guarantee that what’s in it was tested. Edibles look just like candies or granola bars—things that are delicious. So, if an adult who has cannabis-based edibles in the home leaves them in a place where children can get into them, not only are they highly likely to eat them, but they are probably going to eat a lot. This is dangerous, because sometimes the dosing on a product can be something like half a cookie. How many kids do you know who eat half a cookie?

Q: This problem hits home in our region. In May 2022, police investigating the death of 4-year-old Tanner Clements in Spotsylvania County found an empty jar of cannabis-derived gummies nearby. Doctors reported finding an “extremely high” level of THC in Tanner’s system after his death.   What factors are contributing to the increase in cannabis-related health incidents, and are these problems only on the rise among children?=

Kristin Wenger: We are seeing problems with adults as well. Because the laws about cannabis are changing, more people have access to this substance who didn’t before. Another factor is that the cannabis that you can find today is significantly higher in THC than the cannabis of 20 or 30 years ago. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. It is the psychoactive component of cannabis A 2018 study published by the Missouri State Medical Association found that average THC levels in cultivated cannabis in the 1990s were around 4%. In 2017, some of the most popular strains found in dispensaries in Colorado had a THC concentration ranging from 17% to 28%. . THC can cause impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, and, in high doses, psychosis, hallucinations and delusions.

Q: What should people know about the effects of THC on the growing brains of children and young adults?

Kristin Wenger: Cannabis in any form affects young brains differently from older brains. Up until a person reaches their mid-20s, the brain and nervous system are still growing. There have been documented lifelong effects from this from users of cannabis products before the age of 24. These include lower IQ, poor school performance, higher incidence of suicidal ideation later in life and a much greater risk that you will develop a substance use disorder down the road.

Q: What guidance do you give to pregnant or breastfeeding mothers when it comes to cannabis use?

Kristin Wenger: When a pregnant or nursing mother is using cannabis, her baby is using it, too. Cannabis is detected in breastmilk, and it also passes through the placenta into the fetus during pregnancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises women who are pregnant and nursing not to use cannabis, because it isn’t safe for them or their children. Cannabis use during pregnancy can cause fetal growth restriction, a greater risk of stillbirth, preterm birth and long-term brain development issues affecting memory, learning and behavior.

Q: Most people are aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke from cigarettes—what do we know about secondhand cannabis smoke?

Kristin Wenger: Research has shown that people exposed to secondhand cannabis smoke test positive for cannabis in a drug urine screen. We also know that with vaping, the vapor that a person exhales—not just the vape coming off their device—contains pollutants including volatile chemicals and ultra-fine particles and other things that are dangerous to breathe. When it comes to children and even adults up until their mid-20s, there is no safe level of tobacco exposure, and there is no safe level of cannabis exposure. I just wouldn’t risk it. I wouldn’t want to have secondhand smoke or secondhand vape in any environment where anyone younger than their mid-20s is spending time.

In the same way that we have learned to avoid smoking tobacco products in enclosed areas when children are present, we should observe these same practices with cannabis products.

Q: Where can parents get information if they are worried their child has been exposed to cannabis?

Kristin Wenger: If someone is not breathing, cannot be awakened, or is having a seizure, dial 911. In all other situations, call the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.This is a free, confidential helpline available 24 hours a day. One common barrier to accessing the Poison Center is fear that we are going to report you to child protective services or law enforcement. This is not our role. Our focus is to make sure that someone is not in harm and that they get the medical care they need. Please call us day or night—you should not be afraid to contact us because of the nature of the substances you are asking about.


Cannabis facts from SAMSHA

  • Approximately 1 in 10 people who use marijuana will become addicted. When they start before age 18, the rate of addiction rises to 1 in 6.
  • Cannabis can cause permanent IQ loss of as much as 8 points when people start using it at a young age. These IQ points do not come back, even after quitting cannabis use.
Learn more at


The Rappahannock Area Community Services Board offers a number of community training opportunities in an effort to reduce the problems related to alcohol, tobacco and other drug use while encouraging mental wellness. Visit to learn more.

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