Legalizing cannabis will be a good thing for Canadians, says a UAlberta drug policy expert. From reducing harm to protecting public health, she sees cannabis legalization as an opportunity to improve how we regulate and think about drugs — including alcohol.
The July 1 legalized use of recreational cannabis is fast approaching, with the support of nearly 70 per cent of Canadians. But although more than 40 per cent of Canadians have used cannabis at least once, there is plenty of misinformation in the run-up to legalization.
Elaine Hyshka, ’07 BA, ’16 PhD, assistant professor in the School of Public Health, focuses her work on advancing a public health approach to substance use.
To help unravel some of the misconceptions, she debunks four myths about cannabis use — and explains how legalization could help keep Canadians healthier.
Myth #1: When cannabis becomes legal, more young people will use it.
Canadian youth already report some of the highest rates of cannabis use in the last year, relative to other countries, Hyshka says, adding that cannabis will remain illegal for those under 18.
She points to the early experience of Washington state and Colorado, which legalized non-medical cannabis use in 2012. So far, they have found that use among young people has remained relatively stable.
How legalization could help: Research shows that prohibiting drugs worsens the harm they do, including disease, death, crime and violence. “Legalization reduces the risk of harm because it opens the door to conversations and education about safer use,” Hysha says. “It also allows us to redirect resources from policing a criminal act to developing health policies that can reduce demand and discourage risky patterns of use.”
Myth #2: Cannabis is a gateway drug.
It's not that simple, says Hyshka. People who use illegal drugs are more likely to participate in other risky behaviours, such as binge drinking and unsafe sex, but she emphasizes that other factors lead to these actions, particularly among youth. Prevention research shows that the strength and quality of parental attachment, as well as peer norms and culture, are the prime determinants of risky behaviour for young people.
How legalization could help: “When we force people into the illegal drug market, they're exposed to other riskier drugs,” says Hyshka. “Legalizing cannabis means we reduce contact with that environment and the opportunity to engage in other types of substance use.”
Myth #3: Smoking cannabis is harmless.
Current evidence is inconclusive on whether smoking cannabis causes cancer, as tobacco does, but there is strong evidence that cannabis leads to respiratory ailments such as chronic bronchitis, says Hyshka. “We know that burning cannabis produces carcinogens, but the amount depends on how cannabis is consumed.”
How legalization could help: “Legalization will remove stigma and open doors to research on patterns of cannabis use in the population and the possible health effects.”
Myth #4: It’s riskier to use cannabis than alcohol.
“Alcohol is a proven carcinogen. It contributes to accidental injury and poisoning, which can cause death,” says Hyshka. Moreover, drinking culture plays a role in how much and how dangerously we drink. “We've created an environment that encourages excessive alcohol consumption with a high density of liquor stores, a wide range of hours for sales and home delivery.”
How legalization could help: While there is little political appetite to tighten policies around alcohol, Hyshka points out that cannabis legalization presents an opportunity to chart a new path. “We can learn from our mistakes with alcohol. This is a chance to re-evaluate how we regulate psychoactive substances and to set a new standard that puts public health first.”
A version of this article appeared originally on the School of Public Health website, This Is Public Health.
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