SA experts warn about cannabis harm in teenagers and pregnant women

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  • The bill on legalising cannabis sits before Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services for ratification.
  • Experts, however, warn of the harmful effect of cannabis on young people and pregnant women.
  • They also caution about the long term impact that cannabis has on the cognitive function of newborns.

As the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill sits with Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services for ratification, health experts warn about the harms of cannabis, especially for teenagers and pregnant women.

The bill makes provisions for adults to possess, cultivate and process a prescribed quantity of cannabis and use the plant, while acknowledging the need to protect people from potential harm.

An editorial published in the South African Medical Journal argues that adolescents, pregnant mothers, and foetuses are vulnerable to the harmful effects of cannabis and that these groups should receive special consideration. To this end, the researchers consulted multiple studies. 

Teen exposure 

The researchers say that a paucity of data on the impact of cannabis on teenagers "makes it impossible to conclude that adolescent cannabis use is safe". The experts found that regular cannabis use is associated with neurological changes and cognitive and emotional deficits in teenagers. 

"Prolonged cannabis use during adolescence also disrupts the neuron maturation processes that occur during this period, with synaptic pruning and white matter development particularly affected. Adolescent cannabis use is also associated with cognitive deficits; adolescents who use cannabis frequently demonstrate more severe executive dysfunction than their adult counterparts.

"Critically, it is not yet clear whether these effects are reversible, with some evidence suggesting that cannabis-related neurocognitive impairments persist into adulthood, even after prolonged abstinence," the researchers wrote.

Pregnant mothers and babies

The study found that many women who use cannabis during pregnancy also experience poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care, making it difficult to highlight the effects of cannabis on foetal development from these other confounding factors. Evidence shows that cannabis use during pregnancy increases the risk of adverse outcomes for women and newborns.

Furthermore, study findings show that cannabis use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding alters the developmental trajectory of multiple brain regions and may result in functional consequences, such as impulse control, visual memory and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders during childhood.

The researchers say that parliamentarians should consider the harm cannabis causes in teenagers and pregnant women. However, they say that it does not mean cannabis legalisation should be resisted, but that policymakers need to ensure that "adolescent cannabis use should be actively discouraged and that pregnant women should be advised to avoid cannabis use".

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