Preparing for cannabis legalization

Legalization is primarily about regulation and is central to a harm reduction approach to drug use, say UAlberta Augustana professors.

Tia Lalani - 23 March 2018

By Geraint Osborne and Tim Parker

Global marijuana march in Vancouver (2013). Photo courtesy of Cannabis Culture (flickr).

While the exact date is in question, it is certain that the Canadian government will legalize cannabis in the summer or fall of 2018. Polls suggest that the majority of Canadians support this initiative, although some remain adamantly opposed. Regardless of one's position, it is clear that it will take a few years for Canadians to adjust to the legalized environment and the burgeoning cannabis industry, especially those working in law, mental health and education.

It is important to remember that legalization is primarily about regulation. Prohibition has been unsuccessful and governments and people have grown weary with the failed and dangerous war on drugs approach. Legalization will allow for the better control of cannabis, the most widely used illicit substance. Regulation is central to a harm reduction approach to drug use as it allows for the production and sale of a safer product, takes the product out of the hands of organized crime, reduces police corruption and channels tax money into health and education initiatives which are far more effective in reducing the harms associated with drug misuse.

As we learned from alcohol prohibition, where there is a demand there will be a supply. If we are going to reduce the harms associated with cannabis misuse, we are far better off addressing the demand side of the equation while we carefully control the supply side. We have made tremendous gains in combating tobacco smoking this way, not to mention the harms associated with alcohol misuse, such as drinking and driving. A legalized environment will also allow for the further study of cannabis, especially its effects on the brain and its consequences for mental health.

In addition to a general moral attitude that taking drugs should be discouraged, some cite the effect that cannabis has on our cognitive abilities as reasons for opposing its legalization. In particular, there is fear based on the findings that cannabis impairs driving and other tasks requiring coordination. It is true that cannabis does have this effect, and one of the issues arising from this is that, at present, there is no incontrovertible way to detect the presence of cannabis and establish the dose taken in impaired drivers. However, I think we can be confident that now that such a test will be very lucrative, one or more will soon be developed.

Opposition also arises because of the common conception that marijuana produces severe brain damage, a conception initially fostered by the anti-drug efforts in the 1940s in the USA, almost comically manifested in the famous film "Reefer Madness". Much research has been done based on these dramatic but largely unsupported initial claims about the danger of cannabis. While the results are somewhat contradictory, there is no question that the amount of brain damage that has been reported is dwarfed by the catastrophic level of cell loss in the brain that occurs as a result of regular consumption of alcohol.

Indeed, as demonstrated by many studies, such as those by neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt and his colleagues, while cannabis is not benign, it is less harmful to individuals and society than tobacco and alcohol. If harm alone was reason enough to criminalize a substance, then these would definitely have to be banned. But we don't criminalize because we know that doing so would lead to far worse problems. It's far better to control these substances and minimize their harms through other mechanisms. At the end of the day, drug misuse is a health and education problem, not a crime problem.

Geraint Osborne, Sociology and Tim Parker, Psychology, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on March 20, 2018.