Trainee Series: Cannabis Use in Adults with FASD

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Written by Monique Reboe-Benjamin, a member of the 2023 CanFASD Trainee Program

Hello, my name is Monique Reboe-Benjamin. I am a Research Associate at the University of Saskatchewan under the guidance of Psychiatrist Dr Mansfield Mela.

Recently, I learned how to tell someone about research using only emojis; let’s try it. What is this topic all about?

Icons in a row of a man and woman, a brain, a plus sign, a joint, a forwards arrow, and a thumbs up and thumbs down.

Cannabis and FASD

In Canada, cannabis became legal to use in 2018. Since that time, there has been an increased awareness and acceptance of cannabis use. Unpublished data from CanFASD showed that 43.2% of adults with FASD use cannabis compared to the 19% of Canadians aged 16 years and older who reported using cannabis in 2022. Anecdotal reports from caregivers of individuals with FASD confirm that adults with FASD often use cannabis.

However, we do not know the impact of cannabis use in adults with FASD. Caregivers report that adults with FASD often use cannabis to self-medicate and cope to help them gethrough their days. Currently, there are no specific medications available to manage FASD and most of the medications given to adults with FASD to help them cause lots of side effects.

Although anecdotal evidence indicates that high rates of cannabis use in adults with FASD, we have a lot of unanswered questions about the potential impacts of such use. For example, we do not know if cannabis helps manage the symptoms of FASD. We also do not know what difference cannabis can make in the daily life of adults with FASD. We also do not know what difference cannabis makes in the physical and mental health of adults with FASD.

Our research study on cannabis use in adults with FASD

Since 2021, I have been a part of a research team exploring the effects of cannabis on adults with FASD.

Our aim is to answers questions such as:

  • How many adults with FASD in Canada use cannabis?
  • How often and how much cannabis do they use? Why do they use cannabis?
  • Do the risks of cannabis use outweigh the benefits?
  • What are some of the personal experiences’ individuals have of using cannabis for their FASD?
  • What has been the impact of cannabis legalization on individuals with FASD?

What do we know about cannabis?

Cannabis is a plant with three main species: “Cannabis sativa”, “Cannabis ruderalis”, and “Cannabis indica”. Today, common names for the plant include marijuana, pot, or Mary Jane.

There are two primary components in cannabis, Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). Though the ratios vary, THC is often the most dominant ratio of the plant. The effects of THC can include hallucinations and psychosis, whereas it has been suggested that CBD has a protective effect on the brain.

Many people believe that cannabis helps with chronic pain, cancer treatment, and epilepsy. The approach to cannabis use has been to avoid the habit-forming THC in favour of the nonaddictive CBD. In the body, cannabis triggers an internal system, the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The positive and negative effects we observe are due to how cannabis interacts with the ECS.

Researchers have shown that when CBD triggers the ECS there are potential benefits for mental health disorders such as the treatment of social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Could cannabis be helpful or harmful for adults with FASD?

Between 2021 and 2023, 116 adults with FASD across Canada completed a survey telling us about their cannabis use. A similar survey had responses from 79 caregivers and support workers.  Most of those who completed the survey were in Alberta and Saskatchewan. For the adults with FASD group, 96% said they used cannabis at least once in their lifetime.  Only 5 adults with FASD reported they have never used cannabis. 85% reported they were currently using cannabis.

Our study findings show some trends and patterns regarding cannabis use in adults with FASD. For example, 36% use 1-5g/week, mainly after 4 pm daily. Current cannabis users reported slightly fewer mentally unhealthy days compared to adults who no longer use cannabis. Adults with FASD also reported cannabis was most helpful for tension, stress, and depression, which we suspect because of the effects of CBD. However, adults with FASD who are currently using cannabis reported that there were side effects such as some level of anxiety, being withdrawn from people, eating, and sleeping too much.

Our study suggests that cannabis helped:

1) relieve symptoms of FASD (e.g., anxiety, tension, and sleep) when individuals could control their use and know how it will affect their bodies; and

2) individuals stay away from other illicit substances and cope with trauma.

However, we cannot definitively answer whether cannabis use is helpful or harmful from one study.  We do not know the long-term effects of cannabis on FASD-related symptoms, and cannabis use in general can have negative effects on health. This research is ongoing, and we are currently finalizing the results from the surveys completed by caregivers.

Final thoughts for your reflection

As our research team continues to explore the benefits and side effects of cannabis use in adults with FASD we invite you to join the conversation. How do you think cannabis use will affect adults with FASD over the long term? What might our findings mean for adults with FASD who use cannabis? How do you think these findings might affect clinical practices and policies for cannabis use for adults with FASD in this era of legalization?


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