Healthy Beginnings

Pot for Tots – Cannabis and Its Role in Children’s Wellness: Where are We?

By Dr. Sean Devlin

Medical drug cannabis bud with THC crystals

Cannabis use in children is certainly a politically and emotionally charged topic. Any evaluation of this should be done through a filter that evaluates both the published empirical data and evidence-based outcomes. The media has recently focused on the plight of poor parents who are caring for children with out-of-control seizure disorders, behavioral issues and even cancer.

For a subset of these children, current pharmaceutical and procedural modalities have been exhausted and/or intolerable by the patients. For those parents who are heartened enough to access cannabis for their children, many have found great relief for their child’s condition.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine evaluated the role of cannabinoids in Dravet Syndrome, a complex childhood epilepsy disorder associated with drug-resistant seizures and a high mortality rate. Overall, results demonstrated that those treated with cannabis had their seizure activity over a month’s time cut in half. On the ip side, a few adverse events including diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, pyrexia, somnolence and abnormal results on liver-function tests were seen in the group treated with cannabis.

For children plagued with cancer, deemed terminal, parents find hope in animal studies where cannabinoids are shown to inhibit tumor growth, cause cancer cells to remit (via a process called apoptosis), inhibit metastasis and inhibit growth of new blood vessels in tumors. On top of those direct mechanisms, cannabinoids have also been shown to enhance the effects of certain chemotherapeutic agents.

Currently, work in the United Kingdom is underway to see the effects of cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive cannabinoid-based ingredient in marijuana. This was prompted by a growing number of parents giving it to their children with brain tumors, which were being treated at the local pediatric oncology center. The lead researcher, Professor Richard Grundy of Nottingham University’s Children’s Brain Tumour Research Centre, said in the last 6 months there had been a surge in parents administering it without medical advice in the belief it might help. There is a multitude of anecdotal evidence that these children were finding responses by combining CBD with other supportive care.

It would be naïve to say that the use of cannabis in children is not without its drawbacks. Some neuroscientists believe early cannabis use can effect learning capacity and limit ambition in children who regularly consume cannabis with THC.

Current research available shows that cannabis use during adolescence can predict the level of education completed later on. However, many other factors making some young people more likely to use cannabis earlier on than others, such as family history or even psychological, economic or educational difficulties, were not taken into account in the studies to date, and a number of new case studies are currently being conducted.

A recent study, which involved looking at more than 1,000 people consuming cannabis in childhood, was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. It demonstrated the following:

  • By taking the age and sex of the participants into account, early consumers are more likely not to obtain a high school diploma, compared to non–users.
  • By taking individual and family traits likely to predict early cannabis use into account, the association is slightly lower but remains statistically significant.
  • Young people who began using cannabis after 17 have earned a diploma at a level comparable to non–users.
  • Early cannabis use and level of education appear to be more strongly related in young girls than in young boys.This study does support findings that early cannabis use in children may lead to less scholarly achievement.

    In emergency rooms, there has been a slight uptick in cases of marijuana overdoses in children. This is notable in states where cannabis has been made legal for adult access. Just like with alcohol, sometimes children find their way to consuming cannabis. This is particularly true with the edible forms of cannabis, which cannot be distinguished from regular sweets like cookies, gummy bears and hard candy, which is quickly changing in the legal access states with stricter packaging, advertising, production and labeling requirements becoming enacted into law.

    Overall, the long-term effects of acute and chronic marijuana exposures on children are unknown, as they have not been thoroughly studied. Because there is lack of sufficient research and scientific findings, doctors do not fully understand marijuana’s long-term effects on children after acute exposures. It is advised that cannabis should always be treated like a medicine. If any parent out there wishes to treat their child with it, they should consult a physician who is experienced both with caring for children and with cannabis as a medicine. Many parents have shared their cannabis success stories through online forums and blogs as well, which can always help during the due diligence process.

    Dr. Devlin is a board certified family practice physician and is board eligible in emergency medicine (BCEM). He is fellowship trained in neuromuscular medicine and anatomy and has extensive experience in pain management and functional medicine. Dr. Devlin is also trained as a homeopathic medical doctor and has been board certified since 2002. He is also a certified IPTLD instructor (since 2006) and has educated several clinicians and helped establish integrative cancer medical practices around the country. For more information, call 775-786-0100 or visit www.WashoeWellness.com.