Pubdate: Fri, 22 Aug 2014
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Page: A5
Copyright: 2014 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andre Picard


Our current mishmash of regulations serves only to polarize public
perception of a drug no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol

The air is thick with pot talk in Canadian political circles these
days, but the rhetoric is so extreme - ranging from "pot kills" to
"pot cures cancer" - that it's sometimes hard to get a grip on what
needs to be done.

There are actually three distinct public-policy questions that need to
be addressed: Is smoking marijuana safe and, if not, what should we do
about it? Should smoking (or possessing) marijuana be a criminal
offence? Should marijuana be used as medicine? Smoking is not healthy,
regardless of what you smoke. But like other so-called recreational
drugs, such as tobacco and alcohol, the risk is minimal with casual
use. What matters is dose and frequency.

A lot of Canadians smoke pot - about one-in-three over the age of 15,
polls show - but the vast majority do so in moderation.

Marijuana is not addictive - in the common sense of the term, where
stopping will cause withdrawal symptoms - but frequent users can
become dependent, which is clearly not healthy. But there are a lot
more alcoholics than there are stoners.

Public-health authorities need to be pragmatic - to focus on harm
reduction. That means warning people about the risks of marijuana
smoking and especially about related activities, like the dangers of
driving a motor vehicle or operating heavy machinery while stoned.

As with tobacco and alcohol, particular attention needs to be paid to
young people and their developing brains. Excessive drug use,
including marijuana, can impact learning and, in rare instances, be a
trigger for more serious mental illness.

What the public needs from health authorities is non-judgmental
information, not Reefer Madness hysteria.

There is no question that, currently, marijuana use has a significant
social and economic cost, most of it due to the crimininalization of

Nearly 80,000 Canadians a year are charged with marijuana-related
offences, most of them for simple possession. It costs about
$500-million a year to enforce our archaic marijuana laws, money that
could obviously be spent better elsewhere.

Having a criminal record is a lot worse for a person's health than
smoking the occasional joint.

Talking openly about marijuana use - and misuse - would certainly be
easier if possession of small quantities of the drug was no longer a
criminal offence, or if its use was decriminalized altogether.

But would decriminalization/ legalization incite more people to smoke
marijuana? Perhaps, but the experience from other jurisdictions shows
the increase would be marginal.

Examining the issue through a public-health lens, it is not logical to
allow (and regulate and tax) the use of drugs like tobacco and
alcohol, and not do so with a drug that is no more harmful. The
penalties for possession/use of marijuana are clearly out of whack
with social norms.

The thorniest public-policy issue is so-called "medical" marijuana.
About 40,000 Canadians now have a permit to purchase and use medical
marijuana. These "patients" smoke about four grams of pot a day, on

There is a lot of anecdote and zeal about treating conditions - from
cataracts to epilepsy - with marijuana. But the harsh reality is there
is not a lot of good scientific evidence that pot works

The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, has potential. But there is
no other drug that is delivered by smoking. We don't have patients who
need pain relief smoke opium. We deliver opiates in controlled amounts
with pills and injections.

Of course, prescription drugs are not the be-all and end-all; they
don't always work and they have side effects.

A lot of Canadians also use so-called natural health products. The
evidence for their benefit is often scant.

The problem with "medical" marijuana is that is in a strange
regulatory netherworld - it is neither a prescription drug nor a
natural health product.

Rather, we have a regulatory regime that requires physicians to
approve access to marijuana (they don't actually prescribe) and the
patient then orders it from a licensed supplier. The physician is a
gatekeeper and there is no intermediary like the pharmacist (or liquor
store clerk) as there is with every other drug, prescription or otherwise.

Under previous rules, patients were allowed to grow their own pot,
which was stranger still. Again, we don't have patients grow their own
opium poppies.

Physicians should not be policing marijuana use, not any more than
they police alcohol or tobacco use. To involve them gives marijuana a
status it does not deserve.

Again, the obvious public-policy solution is decriminalization.
Without the threat of legal action hanging over their heads, people
could self-medicate with marijuana, just as they now do with Aspirin,
St. John's wort and grandma's chicken soup.

Prohibition doesn't work, especially for a drug that is widely used
and has broad public tolerance.

The marijuana policies we have in Canada are an asinine mishmash of
repression and wishful thinking, and they need some serious revamping.  
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