Pubdate: Thu, 20 Apr 2017
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2017 Winnipeg Free Press
Author: Joss Reimer
Page: A9


This time next year will be the last 4/20 - the unofficial cannabis
holiday known by its numeric calendar date - when possessing weed for
personal use will be a crime. Legalization is coming to Canada in the
summer of 2018.

So far, reactions to legalized cannabis have ranged from healthy
concern to outright fearmongering. Some people have claimed it will
lead the youth astray, make our roads less safe and harm our overall

Legalizing cannabis is not without risk. But legalization can also
address how risky our current approach, the so-called War On Drugs,
has been.

In 2013, Canadian police departments reported roughly 73,000
cannabis-related offences, with 80 per cent of these for simple
possession. In Winnipeg, charging drug users has been a rare area of
growth: between 2005 and 2009, overall crime dropped 15 per cent, but
the number of drug charges climbed 40 per cent.

Sending thousands of people through the justice system for possessing
pot is not only expensive, it's bad public-health policy. Fines,
incarceration and criminal records cause stress and harm to
individuals, families and communities. On top of that, racism and
heavier surveillance mean racialized communities bear the brunt of
enforcement. Despite the threat of legal trouble, Manitobans still
rank above the national average in cannabis use. Surveys show a little
more than one in 10 Manitobans say they used pot in the year before
the survey was taken. With no regulation, it's hard to know what's
going into the pot people are smoking or where it's coming from.
That's also been risky.

Luckily, several American states legalized cannabis a few years ago
and we can already see early results. One of the most striking
findings is the impact cannabis legalization may have had on alcohol

Alcohol use is down among Colorado youth, and impaired driving has
dropped in both Colorado and Washington State. In fact, traffic
fatalities have remained stable in every state that has legalized
cannabis. And surveys of youth in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and
Oregon also found marijuana use has stayed steady or even dropped

The legalization experience hasn't been perfect. In Colorado, there
are signs that while adults, who are now legal consumers of marijuana,
are being left alone, freed-up police are stepping up enforcement on
juvenile pot users (especially young African Americans). We need to
make sure that the spirit of legalization - taking more of a
public-health approach to drugs - isn't undermined by ramped-up
enforcement in other areas.

To be clear, regulation and oversight of legalized cannabis are
essential. Pot can be harmful to the developing brain, can be unsafe
for people at risk of psychosis and can be poisonous if you don't know
how much you're taking.

But a public-health approach to cannabis needs to focus not only on
the harms of cannabis itself, but must also consider the harms that
legalization will take away.

We have tried the enforcement approach with the War on Drugs. It
didn't work. If we act on what we've learned here and in other
jurisdictions, legalized cannabis might actually be a step toward
making Manitoba a safer and healthier place.

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Dr. Joss Reimer is a medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional 
Health Authority.
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