With Canada inching towards marijuana legalization, the federal government announced on April 20, 2016, that a new law is expected to be introduced in the spring of 2017. A nine-membered task force, chaired by Anne McLellan (a former deputy prime minister under the prime minister Paul Martin), will be talking to provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, indigenous people, youth, and addiction and health experts on the subject.

Of the eight other members on the government task force, five are doctors. While the constitution of the task force symbolizes the focus on health, many of us may pause to deliberate over the context of this debate within a larger narrative.

Kiran Siddiqui, a fourth-year student pursuing a comparative physiology specialist, has a similar view.

“I’m sure this debate has many more layers than just legalizing or prohibiting, but I think it is good that we are paying attention to it, especially its effects on health and contribution to chronic disease,” says Siddiqui.

If you find yourself doing some preliminary research on the development of the legalization policy in Canada, as I did for this piece, you may find the subject being largely divided into either support for prohibition, driven by results shown by scientific research, or a call for legalization, motivated by the need to remove the social stigma around active users.

However, the U of T faculty is taking a more holistic approach towards understanding the complexities of the debate.

In order to discuss the complexities, we’ll start with the basics.

“The first thing is of course […] that cannabis is not a deadly drug,” says Harold Kalant, an emeritus professor with both an M.D. and Ph.D., who previously taught at U of T’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. “But it has shown to lead to problems with certain maturation processes required for the development of our executive functions, such as working memory, reasoning, [and] problem solving.”

Kalant further explains how these processes mature during adolescence. Therefore, if the use of cannabis begins early and continues during this age, then the reduction of function may be irreversible—even if the individual stops using it.

Michael Chaiton, an assistant professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, explains his research on the relationship of cannabis and tobacco among high school students in the context of this subject.

“The association with poor grades and pattern of substance use has changed over time,” says Chaiton.

“When cannabis use was rare, users were more likely to have poor grades. But as tobacco use became less common, tobacco users were even more likely to have poor grades,” he continues.

Therefore, although he does mention that the cognitive effects of cannabis use appear to be transient in older adults, it also seems to have a longer-lasting impact on people under the age of twenty-five. Chaiton also speculates on how some of the associations between substance use and certain factors, such as grades, are driven by the social climate surrounding their use, rather than the pharmacological characteristics of the drug itself.

While supporters of legalization argue that most studies have shown detrimental effects on health only when observed in association with tobacco or alcohol use (and therefore are not necessarily representative of the causative effects of cannabis use itself), both sides do agree on the importance of regulation following legalization and the importance of cannabis literacy.

“What is most important is real, science-based education that incorporates elements of harm-reduction, and is designed with input from young people themselves,” says Jenna Valleriani, a Ph.D. candidate at U of T’s sociology department. “This is something that has been missing from the education curriculum, and most youth can usually recall only abstinence-based drug education in the past, and very little cannabis-specific education.”

Valleriani is also enrolled in the collaborative graduate program in Addiction Studies at U of T’s Department of Sociology. She emphasizes that education on this topic should be prioritized by starting early, and information about risks and benefits (such as medical uses) should be communicated clearly and without judgment.

Although Kalant also mentions other physical harms associated with smoking cannabis, such as chronic inflammatory disease of the respiratory pathways and the increasing number of accidents caused by impaired driving, he stresses the importance of learning from the results of legalization in Colorado and Washington, and on the importance of informed decision making.

“I think people in the age of being university students have to think in those terms,” he says. “While it does give temporary pleasure and relieves anxiety to some extent, is the benefit you get without risk?”

However, as Valleriani emphasizes, the real impact will be less on the student community and more on youth with criminal records for cannabis possession, where cannabis-related charges significantly and disproportionately target youth.

She mentions how this is exacerbated when looking at at-risk populations and minority youth. “Criminal records for the rest of their adult lives drastically outweighs the harms to the user [….] more broadly for simply using cannabis,” says Valleriani.

She explains how an effective legalization regime would include some type of lesser penalty (i.e. not a criminal record) for youth who access cannabis outside the eventual regulated system.

Although decriminalization for youth offenses is one option, she mentions how “The task force will have to assess the impact of fines on youth from different socioeconomic statuses, which can still disproportionately affect young people of varying backgrounds.”

Kalant also discusses his inclination toward decriminalization, by mentioning the success these policies have seen in Australia and Portugal. He explains that though “these fines won’t give you a criminal record […] they will just behave as a deterrent to say that society does not approve.”

Valleriani also mentions how most research over the last 40 years, including two important government reports, the LeDain Commission of 1972 and the Senate Report in 2002, concluded that the effects of the prohibition of cannabis and subsequent criminalization is far worse than use of cannabis itself.

While the current government task force has been developing their draft policy based on the idea of protecting youth (by prohibiting legal use under the age of 25), Valleriani emphasizes how “age limits, in and of themselves, do not deter youth from using cannabis.” She explains how setting a higher age limit than alcohol, for example, will incentivize alcohol use and do little to deter cannabis use.

Valleriani further says, “Young people have accessed cannabis illegally under prohibition, and will likely do so under a legalized regime. The missing piece, we hope, is access to science-based, realistic education around cannabis that gives young people the tools to engage in decisions around their own health.”

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