The legalization of pot by mid-2017 will certainly come as a relief to police agencies that have been torn between enforcing the law and resisting the public will. It will also embark Canada on a massive science experiment.
The medical and scientific communities have been telling us that they quite simply don’t fully understand what regular use of the recreational drug does to developing brains, nor its true effects in treating psychological symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.
This is not to argue against legalization – after all, a big-spending government needs all the revenue streams it can create. It’s also clear that the only way to beat criminal organizations in this war to is join ’em. Even so, our legislators have a lot of work to do between now and when this new regime comes into effect, likely sometime within the next year.
A federal task force decided last week that sales should be restricted to those 18 and older, with a personal possession limit of 30 grams. This, unfortunately, is at odds with a recommendation from the Canadian Medical Association, which called for a minimum age of 21, with strict limits on quantity and potency until 25. The CMA favours the higher age limit because there is evidence that marijuana can affect brain development right up to that age.
The task force was acknowledging the obvious – that enforcement of any such age restriction is completely unrealistic; if a 21-year-old wants to smoke a substance that’s legal for a 25-year-old, do we really expect our law enforcement agencies to devote precious resources to enforcing it?
That’s just one of many questions about the effects of pot. Anne McLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister and chair of the task force, said recently there is a dearth of scientific research on what the legal limits should be on consuming cannabis and operating a vehicle.
The task force says the government shouldn’t just pocket the tax revenues generated from the sale of cannabis; it wants public education campaigns and further research on the health risks associated with consumption. It would also like to see a building body of research on the effects of cannabis-impaired driving.
Many pot advocates claim marijuana has positive health effects, especially around the treatment of depression and anxiety. However, new research from Colorado State University calls those claims into question. Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational pot usage, providing it with largest pool of subjects so far.
The scientists found that those who reported using the drug to treat their depressive symptoms scored lower on their anxiety symptoms than on their depressive symptoms – so they were actually more depressed than they were anxious. Self-reported anxiety sufferers were found to be more anxious than they were depressed. In other words, “If they were using cannabis for self-medication, it wasn’t doing what they thought it was doing,” said co-author Jacob Braunwalder.
On the flip side, there’s growing evidence that cannabis does provided chronic pain relief for some and reduces nausea for those receiving chemotherapy.
So, to recap, Canada is on the brink of legalizing and taxing the sale of a substance that we know has harmful effects on young brains, probably has some – but not all – of the beneficial health effects that advocates claim, is known to encourage dependency, and comes in a dizzying (forgive the pun) array of potency geared to every habit and taste.
This is going to be very interesting.
From a practical point of view, the effects of legalization are not going to be terribly revolutionary. Pot smoking is ubiquitous and getting your hands on some of the illegal stuff is only slightly more difficult than buying a pack of cigarettes – or at least, so I’m told.
As we move inexorably toward this inflection point in our war on drugs, it’s vital for the federal task force to put science ahead of politics. As smart a strategy as legalization appears to be, it needs to be done with our eyes wide open.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.