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Questions and answers on Canada’s legalized cannabis debate

University of Ontario Institute of Technology researcher Judith Grant, PhD, comments on new directions in drug policy

Cannabis legalization in Canada is expected to be implemented on July 1, 2018.
Cannabis legalization in Canada is expected to be implemented on July 1, 2018.

While Canada’s national debate over legalizing recreational cannabis use has recently been in the spotlight, the discussion and arguments go back many years.

Cannabis consumption in Canada was made illegal nearly a century ago (1923). Researchers believe its use was minimal until the 1960s. Since then, consumption has gradually increased and public acceptance of legalized cannabis has grown. In 2001, regulated medical cannabis became legal.

The federal Liberal Party’s 2015 election campaign included a pledge to pursue legalizing cannabis. A 2016 Nanos Research poll suggested seven in 10 Canadians supported the plan. Formal legalization is widely expected to take effect on July 1, 2018.

At the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, drug education and policy researcher Judith Grant, PhD, explores a wide range of topics from drug use and abuse, to addiction and recovery. The Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities shares some perspectives as the country moves toward embracing a new era on cannabis use:

Why do we need to have legalized cannabis in Canada? Why now?
Dr. Grant: “Perhaps, because as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated during the last election regarding one-half of his cabinet being women: “because its 2015”. So, maybe, it is just time to do so. It is our Prime Minister who is on board with this.”

Why can’t things continue along as they have in recent years?
Dr. Grant: “Many have argued the 94-year-old law prohibiting cannabis is now out of date. They suggest the drug is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, which has been legal and regulated for decades. Those favouring change point to a backlog of criminal cases in the courts. The cannabis market is left to the domain of criminal elements. Enormous taxpayer resources are spent trying to police the issue, yet the demand for cannabis has not lessened.”

What has made legalization a success in other parts of the world?
Dr. Grant: “Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, Uruguay and the Netherlands are all countries where cannabis use has been decriminalized, legalized or liberalized. All have rates of child cannabis use that range from one-third to more than one-half lower than in Canada. One cannot argue that is not a good point regarding legalization.

Portuguese attorney and author Glenn Greenwald’s research says ‘Legalization in Portugal has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country’. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime cannabis use in people over 15 years old in the European Union (just 10 per cent). By comparison, in the United States that rate is about 40 per cent.”

People seem to be smoking pot whenever and wherever they want nowadays, especially younger people. Isn’t cannabis already legal, de facto?
Dr. Grant: “No, not as yet―even though it seems so. From my perspective and from what my students tell me―especially in my Advanced Justice Studies: Drugs in Society class, cannabis is not as prevalent as we might think.”

Most seem to be in favour of decriminalization. But won’t the health system face more patient concerns/demand down the road if more people are consuming cannabis on a regular basis (e.g. more cases of cancer)?
Dr. Grant: “I don’t know the answer to this one―I don’t think anyone does as yet. But I do know that cannabis is helpful in various diseases, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, chronic pain, Alzheimer's, cancer and others. Maybe that point will outrank the problems with using the drug over the long term.”

Is Canada ready for legalized cannabis? Will there still be some laws in place?
Dr. Grant: “I think we are ready—at least I, personally, think it will be better to have it out in the ‘open,’ so to speak. At least, then, we will know more about what we are dealing with in terms of its use.”

Are there concerns about implementing a system able to restrict sales to certain ages (as in tobacco/alcohol)? Will such regulations work, or will they merely be a charade?
Dr. Grant: “Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair has stated, ‘What we are proposing to do is to lift the criminal sanction, which is the first step of legalization. We’ll replace the existing system of cannabis control, for which the evidence is overwhelming it is currently failing our kids, failing our communities, and failing the health of all Canadians, with a system of strict regulation for production. This will still leave in place a strict criminal sentence for those who produce outside of the regulated regime’.

The legislation is designed to allow at the provincial, municipal and the federal levels, regulations that will control consumption ‘so it can be done in a healthier, safer, and more socially responsible way.’”

So much has been done over the years to combat cigarette smoking, but are the optics on legalization making cannabis smoking ‘cool’ or even desirable for young people to start as a habit. Are you concerned that this legislature sends mixed messages to young people?
Dr. Grant: “No, not really as I believe that enough regulations will be in place to make it difficult (as much as is possible) for young people to obtain/buy the product if they are not of age. Similar to smoking/drinking, the government/society can only do so much.”

How will the police prevent people from driving vehicles under the influence of cannabis?
Dr. Grant: “Those limits are not clear yet. But looking at how states like Colorado and Washington deal with drivers who’ve smoked cannabis could provide a blueprint.”

What about the many Canadians who have fought for so long to avoid breathing second-hand smoke? Realistically, who will stop someone from smoking pot outside a building where others may be smoking a cigarette?
Dr. Grant: “I think that is still much up in the air as to how you could stop someone from smoking pot outside a building along with others who smoke cigarettes. Maybe the government will instigate new laws prohibiting the smoking of pot as well as cigarettes in certain places, same as at present.”   

Does cannabis smoke have similar cancer-causing properties like cigarettes? Is it equally or less addictive?
Dr. Grant: “Studies suggest that, as with other recreational substances, cannabis’ health effects depend on the frequency of use, the potency and amount of cannabis consumed, and the age of the consumer. Some assert that casual use by adults poses little or no risk for healthy people.”

Will legalized pot create a drop in demand for cigarettes or tobacco?
Dr. Grant: “I don’t know if this will create a drop in demand for cigarettes as this will be as it is now, a personal preference.”

Will product packaging regulations be similar to tobacco products?
Dr. Grant: “I expect they will be, although I have not heard how they will be the same or different.”

How do you see your research changing/evolving in the coming years as legalization is implemented?
Dr. Grant: “I don’t consider cannabis a hard drug and I generally interview people in my research on addiction/recovery regarding their use of the harder drugs such as cocaine, opioids and those who were severe alcoholics. So, no, I don’t see my research changing. In my personal opinion, having worked with individuals who have been addicted to hard drugs, their stories have convinced me that compared to their use/abuse of such drugs, cannabis is an innocuous drug whose effects are mostly euphoric and mild.”

Key details in the federal legislation:

  • Sales to be restricted to people age 18 and older, but provinces can increase the minimum age. In Ontario, it will be illegal for people under the age of 19 to buy, sell, have and share recreational cannabis (similar to alcohol and tobacco).
  • New fines or jail time for anyone who sells cannabis to youth or creates products appealing to youth.
  • Adults could publicly possess up to 30 grams of dried cannabis.
  • Sales by mail allowed in provinces lacking a regulated retail system.
  • Adults could grow up to four cannabis plants.
  • Adults could produce legal cannabis products, such as food or drinks, for personal use at home.
  • At first, sales will entail only fresh and dried cannabis, cannabis oils, and seeds and plants for cultivation.
  • Possession, production and distribution outside the legal system would remain illegal.
  • The existing program for access to medical cannabis would continue as it currently exists.

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