Debunking myths about cannabis legalization

Despite the prevalence of cannabis use in Canadian society, there are still misconceptions about legalization.

More than 40% of Canadians report having used cannabis at least once in their lifetime, and almost 70% of Canadians agree with legalization of the drug for recreational use.

Despite the prevalence of cannabis use in Canadian society, there are still misconceptions about legalization.

Elaine Hyshka, assistant professor in the School of Public Health, is an expert in substance use and related public policy. The researcher debunked some common myths about legalization and explained how regulating cannabis is consistent with a public health approach to drugs-protecting health and reducing harm.

Myth #1: If cannabis is made legal, more people will use it.

False. "It's important to note that Canadian youth already report the highest rates of past year use, relative to other countries," said Hyshka. "While there is evidence to suggest there may be an increase in use amongst young adults, cannabis will remain illegal for those under 18."

Advertising regulations, strategic pricing and controlled distribution, are examples of policy levers that can discourage use. Hyshka points to the early experience of Washington state and Colorado, which legalized non-medical cannabis use. So far, they have found that use among young people has remained relatively stable.

How legalization could help: "Science shows that prohibition of psychoactive substances only worsens the harms of their use," said Hyshka. "From a public health perspective, legalization reduces the risk of harm because it opens the door to conversations and education about safer use. 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.

False. "This has been researched extensively, and it's clear that it's not that simple," said Hyshka.

People who engage in illegal drug use are likely to participate in other risky behaviours, like excessive drinking and unsafe sex, but Hyshka emphasizes it is other factors that lead to these actions, particularly amongst youth.

"Prevention science shows that the strength and quality of parental attachment, and the peer norms and culture that youth experience are the prime determinants of risky behaviour."

How legalization could help: "When we force people into the illegal drug market, they're exposed to other illicit drugs. Legalizing cannabis means we reduce contact with that environment and the opportunity to engage in other types of substance use," Hyshka said.

Myth #3: Smoking cannabis is harmless.

False. "Current evidence is inconclusive on whether smoking cannabis causes cancer, like tobacco does, but there is strong evidence that it leads to respiratory tract ailments such as chronic bronchitis," said Hyshka.

How legalization could help: "We know that burning cannabis produces carcinogens, but the amount depends on how cannabis is consumed. Legalization will remove stigma and open doors to research on patterns of cannabis use in the population and the possible health effects," said Hyshka.

Myth #4: It's riskier to use cannabis than alcohol.

False. "Alcohol is a proven carcinogen, it contributes to accidental injury and poisoning which can cause death," said Hyshka. "In Alberta, there's an imbalance between industry, public interest and public health. 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: Hyshka acknowledges that there is little political appetite to go back and tighten policies around alcohol, but she 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."

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