By Dale Smith
Whether or not you’re suddenly consuming marijuana as of one second past midnight on October 17th, the legalization of weed in Canada will affect your life. On the eve of cannabis legalization, Sixth Estate’s Spotlight series discussed the ramifications of the change, and what Canadians should realistically expect and prepare for. Host Catherine Clark was joined by a panel of experts and stakeholders, led off by Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research, who presented polling on legalization commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).
The Nanos research shows that most people are concerned about people driving while impaired and the negative impacts of legalization on youth. He found that 27 per cent of Canadians felt they were knowledgeable about the health effects of cannabis and 57 per cent felt they were somewhat knowledgeable, and that those under 35 years of age were more likely to self-report they felt knowledgeable.
“When only about 25 per cent of Canadians self-report being knowledgeable, it shouldn’t be a surprise that educating youth has a significant level of traction,” said Nanos of the results.
Nanos added that 52 per cent of Canadians feel confident in knowing the effects of cannabis on driving, and that while 47 per cent of Canadians have admitted to trying it (another seven per cent admit to using it occasionally and three per cent call themselves frequent users), some 62 per cent of Canadians say they don’t plan to use it once it is legalized.
“I would expect this number to change,” said Nanos. “It will be interesting to see what the pace or velocity of change might be on this particular question.”
Dr. Mark Ware, chief medical officer with the Smiths Falls-based medical marijuana company Canopy Growth, is the former director of clinical research at the MUHC Pain Management Unit in Montreal. Ware, who served as the vice-chair of the federal government’s legalization task force, said he’s been interested in cannabis as a way to deal with chronic pain for more than 20 years.
“The task force opened my eyes to public policy, and realizing the impacts that the policy has had on cannabis use patterns, criminalization and social justice issues,” said Ware. “At the cusp of legalization, I see it less as a point in time than as part of a very long process that has been going on for some time.”
Ware said that the process will be a journey over the coming decades, and that he looked forward to working with cannabis as a legal substance.
Rebecca Jesseman, director of policy with the CCSA, said that her organization is looking at legalization from a public health standpoint, which means having a robust regulatory framework, investing in prevention, having treatment services available for those who have problematic use, and monitoring the impact.
“It is going to be a work in progress,” said Jesseman. “We have the opportunity and the challenge of a natural experiment in Canada where the regulations vary in every province and territory, so we’re in a unique position as policy researchers to be able to look at what’s working in which context, and to establish best practices in order to lead the world in terms of regulation.”
Ware said that because there will be a greater ability to assess tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis) levels and where cannabis is coming from, it will be easier to measure risks going forward because better data can be collected from use.
Jesseman added that policy makers should be more proactive than just waiting for research on cannabis use, and should draw from research on other substances like alcohol, and tools such as minimum pricing to curb problematic use.
“We know about how to effectively communicate messages about responsible use,” said Jesseman. “We’ve learned from the tobacco campaigns, from the impaired driving campaigns, so applying those lessons to cannabis is something we can and should be doing right now.”
Nanos said that educators should also take the time to have the discussion about edibles and consumables before they are available on the market, given that there is already social stigma around smoking. Ware added that there isn’t a simple unit of measurement for cannabis use, which will make it more difficult to have sensible conversations during the education process.
Jesseman said that point of sale information will also be very important for communicating and educating the public, including through product packaging.