Cannabis legalization is coming to Canada. What that will look like varies from province to province, but just getting a bill through the houses of government has been a long slog.
Part of the problem has been the reality of politics today. Conservatives are accusing liberals of pushing through the legislation for political expediency and not for the good of the people. This is a common gripe in Canada, and just about every country has experienced some form of this fight when it comes to almost any landmark legislation.
Another aspect of the problem is that Canada has had decades of reefer madness-style rhetoric in our politics. Even after medical marijuana became legal, Prime Minister Stephen Harper still felt the need to say marijuana is “infinitely worse” than cigarettes are.
But, especially in the Senate, not all of the questions asked by conservative senators are baseless or totally out of left field. And, even though the legislation passed, it’s still a good idea to get a handle on the conservatives’ concerns.
Concern #1: Young People Will Get Hooked on Cannabis
While the Senate debated cannabis legalization, the most pressing concern that has been talked about over and over again is how cannabis affects young people. While this may sound a little bit like The Simpson’s character Helen Lovejoy screaming, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” there’s some meat here.
Canada already has one of the highest youth rates of cannabis consumption in the world. And some studies have shown that young people consuming cannabis outside of a medical regime may experience deleterious effects—such as trouble with memory, processing information and problem solving—down the line.
Senator Judith Seidman points out, “A cross-national, peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of the Public Library of Science conducted to understand the effects of cannabis legalization on adolescents found that cannabis liberalization in 38 different countries was associated with higher levels of more frequent cannabis use among teenagers.”
The idea is that legalization will lead to more young people smoking cannabis, which will lead to those cognitive troubles. However, those negative effects from cannabis are likely overblown, according to a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, while the study the senator cites does conclude that marijuana use increases after liberal cannabis laws are enacted, it doesn’t break down recreational and medical marijuana consumers. In fact, youth drug use of all kinds is down in Colorado following recreational marijuana legalization.
Concern #2: Legal Marijuana Will Lead to Increased Traffic Accidents
Maybe the only question more common than how will legislation affect children is what will happen when people drive their cars after consuming marijuana? It’s not a good idea to drive after consuming cannabis, and most people know this. But it’s not an altogether unreasonable concern, especially when there aren’t any proven methods for testing marijuana impairment in drivers.
Senator Vernon White has plenty of scary statistics to mine from Colorado on the subject: “In 2009, Colorado marijuana-related traffic deaths involving drivers testing positive for marijuana represented 9% of all deaths. By 2016, that number was 21%.”
Officials from the Colorado state government and the Colorado cannabis industry have come together to talk about strategies to reduce cannabis-impaired driving. However, it’s not exactly clear if marijuana legalization is what’s to blame for this spike.
Testing cannabis impairment is difficult, because tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can stay in a person’s system for days and even weeks. What this means is that it’s not possible to say if people who were in accidents were high at the time, or if they simply had THC in their system from consuming cannabis three days or even three weeks prior.
A number of other factors are also involved, like how often people are tested for cannabis after a traffic fatality. Another often-ignored part of marijuana driving statistics from Colorado is that many people who died with cannabis in their system were also impaired by alcohol.
Driving high is no joke, but there’s no reason to believe that legalization will lead to many more people driving intoxicated—at least not yet.
Concern #3: Cannabis Ads Will Result in a Public Health Crisis
While it comes up much less than concerns over youth and driving do, conservative senators take issue with how cannabis companies will be allowed to promote their products. According to one senator, “As public health experts have pointed out, the government’s approach to regulating cannabis promotion has far more in common with how we regulate alcohol.”
While there may be something to the argument that cigarette, alcohol and marijuana companies should face different standards than other types of products do, alcohol is a bad example to make this point.
Canada has pretty loose advertising laws for alcohol. Yet drinking rates have slowly fallen over the past few years.
The urge to protect people from predatory advertising, especially from psychoactive chemicals, isn’t totally off base. Plus, there’s a pretty clear correlation between restricting cigarette ads and falling smoking rates. Whether cannabis advertising would have the same kind of influence as cigarette ads did is up for debate. But none of these senators seem to mention that perhaps provinces should decide what kind of advertising is allowed within their own borders.
Even the best objections to cannabis legalization in Canada can be answered by scientific studies and data from other places that have already legalized adult-use cannabis. That said, it’s still important to understand that those opposed to cannabis legalization aren’t malicious; they just need to read up on the latest studies and facts. A lifetime of prohibition is guaranteed to point some people toward cherry-picking studies and comparing marijuana to other drugs, even though cannabis is so very different.
While the federal government has passed adult-use legalization, these objections will still be important to keep in mind. Almost every province will have to fight a few more battles, and in those fights, these same problems will rear their ugly heads again.
Photo credit: Paul VanDerWerf