Transitioning to Legal Cannabis

November 20, 2016

Some people who are experienced with cannabis see a huge need to help educate the public and politicians about this plant because fear seems to abound everywhere. There is still so much misinformation coming from some authoritative sources, and unravelling decades of propaganda is no small task. Most people don’t know that cannabis has never caused a single death in thousands of years of use, and that by over-regulating it to address perceived harms could be a futile effort in the face of a long established illegal market that has been around for decades.

Throughout our lifetimes, cannabis has been a part of society in the worst possible way – total prohibition, which in reality means, no rules, anything goes. Ten and twelve year old children buy, sell and smoke it, and have for decades. Now the rhetoric to strictly regulate and restrict access, implies we will be under an extreme opposite cannabis regime, albeit, a legal one

A partial regulatory model has been in place since 2001 when medicinal users forced the government through the court system, to slice a wedge into prohibition and create a regulated cannabis industry to accommodate their health needs. Until 2013, patients were basically on their own, then a change in government policy led to a rash of business and investment money pouring in to create a large production and mail distribution system. This de facto prototype for full out legalization has heightened security requirements that won’t be necessary in the post-prohibition world, but many other changes will be needed if a reduction in the dependance on the illegal market is the goal.

We are fortunate to have several legalization models to look at now, ranging from national models such as Uruguay, to state models like Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and now Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Each is unique, as the Canadian model will also be.

What predominant factors will be considered when crafting the new law? Will the current policy with no rational basis prevail, or will science and sociology play a bigger role? There are studies proclaiming some harm from cannabis, and other studies claiming beneficial aspects, so sometimes the science is confusing, though it helps us formulate opinions. Canada records arrests and judicial data every year, but has been very inept at monitoring and recording sociological usage data. The U.S.A., U.K., Australia and other nations have been monitoring usage for decades and this data will be helpful to compensate for the lack of homegrown statistics.

We have fifty years worth of observations from widespread cannabis use in this country that provides evidence for many of the pressing questions we have. For all those decades, as it is now, a portion of the population ingest cannabis occasionally or daily, and go about their lives, while family, friends, co-workers remain oblivious or mainly unconcerned. Using cannabis has never been an issue that set alarm bells off on the radar screen of the national psych where we are all yelling “Do something!” like what is happening with fentanyl and distracted driving today.

Common sense, anecdotical evidence, personal experience, and that of friends, co-workers and family, throughout our lifetimes, must be taken into account. We are also fortunate to have two comprehensive government studies with detailed reports that could provide some of the foundation for new regulations. The LeDain Commission in 1972 and the 2002 Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs explore the issue of cannabis. The extensive and thorough work should become a reference point to draw on today.


Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs

Since it was struck in March 2001, the committee held 39 meetings, including town hall meetings in communities across the country, and heard from more than 100 witnesses from Canada and abroad.

The committee received 23 reports and looked at summaries of work done in other countries. It took into account Canada’s international obligations and the approaches other countries take to drug policy.


So where does the fear of cannabis regulation come from?

There was a revealing story in Friday’s Citizen by reporter Jacquie Miller about a marijuana dispensary in Orléans that opened in a building that also houses a couple of services that cater mostly to children.

One was a private tutoring centre, the other a martial arts academy. The soccer moms are anxious. “This is killing me,” said one. “We are terrified,” said another, threatening to pull her three children from the tutoring centre.

Egan: Are we ready for pot sales at the mini-mall? Hell no.

We cannot cater to the fears of some people when it comes to cannabis regulation that affects growing, consuming, and distribution. Instead, we need to do what is in the best interest of overall public health and safety. The main concerns seem centered around youth access and cannabis and driving.

Youth Usage

In Canada, cannabis use has always been higher among teens than adults, perhaps because anyone, of any age, can sell cannabis anywhere, right now. Prohibition has the exact opposite effect of it’s intended purpose – to keep cannabis out of the hands of everyone. Age restrictions will be part of a regulated system, as it is with tobacco and alcohol, and will prevent some youth from obtaining cannabis. Despite regulations, some youth still smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol and will still use cannabis, because there is no system in existence that can create total abstinence until a certain age, so education is the key.

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If we look at the real risks of teen cannabis use, many fears could be alleviated. The main message we hear is that cannabis is harmful to the developing brain. Everything from energy drinks, fatty foods, to alcohol fall in that category, and do greater harm than cannabis, yet we do nothing to restrict access besides not allowing them on licensed premises that are everywhere, and they can have all the energy drinks and fast food burgers they want, so it really is a non-issue, in that regard.

Legalization will be a step in the right direction to decreasing teen use if other jurisdictions are any indication. In the Netherlands where cannabis has been tolerated and sold in coffeehouse since the 1970’s, teen use is consistently lower than here. In Colorado, teen use decreased after legalization, so taking the allure of a prohibited substance away, may do more than a system so restrictive and inaccessible, it accomplishes nothing.

There can be some risk for some youth – amotivational youth can be drawn to cannabis, which perpetuates the stereotype of the “lazy stoner kid”. Studies show correlation, not causation, but it is difficult to dissolve false beliefs with the truth.

Some youth with a predisposition to schizophrenia (family history), self-medicate with cannabis, but there is promising research that shows there may be a biological basis for this. Cannabidiol (CBD) , found in cannabis and hemp, helps treat a deficiency found in schizophrenics that alleviates the symptoms. High THC levels may antagonize the condition, but there are now strains available that have high CBD / low THC which could alleviate this problem .

Even if there were terrible risks to youth from cannabis, like there is from alcohol and tobacco, we will never be able to wish it out of existence and kids will use it. Let’s deal with reality, and how best to mitigate the damage to youth and society.

If the age restriction on cannabis is too high, twenty-one to twenty five years, than the existing illegal market will continue to thrive, driven by producers and customers excluded from the legal market. These youth could also risk arrest, and a criminal record, which will shut them out of many of life’s privileges forever. It would be in our best interest if some of our most vulnerable citizens, youth – are not subjected to criminal records for cannabis related offences.

It is interesting to note that after hearing all the evidence, the Senate Special Committee On Illegal Drugs recommended the age of sixteen years as the age of majority for cannabis consumers.

Cannabis and Driving

Trying to create laws around the very complex issue of driving under the influence of cannabis is being thoroughly discussed in Canada and the US states where cannabis is legal. This is partly a red herring because there have been laws on the books in Canada since 1925:

In 1925, Parliament amended the Criminal Code to include a new offence of driving while intoxicated by a *narcotic. The offences were also amended to include “care or control” of a motor vehicle, not just driving.

*cannabis was considered a narcotic.

Driving while impaired by anything is never sanctioned, but in the fifty or more years since people have been smoking cannabis and driving, it has never caused enough concern to ever be part of the news headlines, talking points, editorials… the problem doesn’t exist to any noticeable extent that should warrant further intrusion into life and liberty. Laws are in place to deal with cannabis impairment if warranted – drug impaired driving, reckless driving, and dangerous driving to name a few. A good reason has never been given why a new law is needed, and why it is believed that the cannabis using population is going to grow so significantly that this is justified. Science does not bear out any of our presumptions.

Cannabis is very different than alcohol in how it interacts with us based on experience level, consumption level, type of ingestion, THC levels, and so on. A medicinal user can smoke one gram of cannabis and feel normal instead of in pain or ill, whereas an inexperienced user could feel very light headed or dizzy before they smoke half a gram. A patient with tremors may drive better from the steadiness that cannabis brings instead of shaking at the wheel. Eating cannabis brings a different type of intoxication than smoked or vaped cannabis.

It is also a disservice to single out cannabis when people drive with many different pharmaceuticals and other substances in their system that impairs. Sleep deprived and distracted drivers are the same, if not a greater risk, on the road.

Cannabis is legal in Colorado and Washington

Cannabis is legal in Colorado and Washington

A large study commissioned by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states, people who smoke marijuana have a minimally higher risk of crashing than those who stay sober. During a 20-month study of 10,858 drivers in Virginia Beach, researchers working 24/7 compared drug and alcohol readings from people involved in crashes against similar people (at the same time of day and location) who kept their cars intact. The main takeaway: When factoring age, sex, and race, there was no “significant increased risk of crash involvement” due to marijuana use.

Canada’s Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs looked a cannabis and driving and concluded:

* between 5% and 12% of drivers may drive under the influence of cannabis; this percentage increases to over 20% for young men under 25 years of age;

* Cannabis alone, particularly in low doses, has little effect on the skills involved in automobile driving. Cannabis leads to a more cautious style of driving. However it has a negative impact on decision time and trajectory. This in itself does not mean that drivers under the influence of cannabis represent a traffic safety risk;


Scientists at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego just received a US$1.8 million grant from the state of California to gather data about dosages, time and what it takes to impair driving ability – and then create a viable roadside sobriety test for cannabis.

At this point, there is nothing to support or critique until the government implements a new policy on cannabis and driving, but we can question if it is warranted. No one wants to see anyone drive if they are too high, sleep deprived, or impaired by anything, and training more police to detect any impairment with initial screening by roadside tests that involve coordination, response time and cognition, with further testing if warranted, could be the best way to create safer roads for us all.


The medical program has brought us a glimpse of some of things we can expect from legalization that are a welcome relief to many users. Instead of the usual procedure of buying a baggie of some unknown strain of cannabis, patients access cannabis that is mailed to them in a container labelled with a strain name and THC / CBD content. Ideally, a more complete profile that includes a wider array of cannabinoids and terpenes, which are other important medicinal chemicals found in cannabis are also available. With this information, consumers will be able to determine what strains have the most beneficial impact on their life and lifestyle.

Also, our pioneering cannabis advocates in the illegal market, have shown us what it is like to have dedicated cannabis storefronts that sell an array of products from smoking and vaping products, to buds, edibles, oils, tinctures, topicals and information. They usually exist peacefully in their neighbourhoods, unless an arbitrary police raid ensues to remind us prohibition still exists.

The government has made it clear it’s intention is to design a new system to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access. If the medical program is any indication, it is possible the business community, while working in it’s own self-interest, will help bring a more rational scenario than if the government is left to it’s own devices,.

A case in point: a doctors prescription is needed for legal use, and in the first thirteen years of legal medical use, approximately 28,000 patients were registered (2,000/year,) and in the last three years, over 75,166 were registered as of June 30, 2016 (over 25,055/year) when multiple big producers became involved and helped open up access. The same policy change in 2013 that allowed for multiple big producers, also took away patients right to grow for themselves. The courts have recently reinstated that right, so over 75,000 patients have a choice to grow or buy, and that number grows fast every day.

The competing and co-operating interests of the very long established cannabis industry of small mom and pop growers, and the nascent industrial model of cannabis production that requires huge investment money, are formidable forces for the government to reckon with when drafting legislation that ultimately wants to replace the existing illegal market with a vibrant, legal and regulated model.

Certain criteria must be met if any degree of success is to be achieved:

– Allow the ACMPR medical program to run concurrently with a legal, regulatory model for adult use
– Allow for different types of distribution, including mail and coffeehouses / dedicated retail outlets
– Allow for growers of all sizes – personal, and licensed craft growers, medium and large producers.
– Do not try and limit THC levels – this will create extra expense, bureaucracy and a sought after illegal market that will fill the gap
– Allow youth to be legal at 16 or at the age of majority in that province. Criminal records should not exist for cannabis offenses.

Regulation will come with a reasonable or heavy hand that will require amendments along the way as legalization plays out. The Task Force on Legalization is due to produce a report this month, so that will give us our first peek of the path ahead.

Debra Harper

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