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Important Areas of Consensus on Cannabis in Canada

This one of a series of posts about the Senate of Canada’s consideration of Bill C-45, which would legalize and strictly regulate the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis in Canada.


Important Areas of Consensus on Canada’s Here-and-Now Challenges with Cannabis

Over the past 18-months we have seen a healthy and open national discussion on cannabis.  There is a growing body of evidence on cannabis, and useful research reports such as the 2016 Expert Task Force Report on legalization and regulation, and an in-depth Canadian Cannabis Survey released in December 2017, which will be used to benchmark changes in cannabis use over time. 

Statistics Canada is also planning to develop benchmark data on cannabis pricing, the size of the illegal cannabis market, and on how much Canadians spend on the drug.  It turns out that in 2017, about 4.9 million Canadians aged 15 to 64 spent an estimated $5.7 billion on cannabis for medical and non-medical purposes.

I’ve always thought that an important starting point for Canadians’ and the Senate’s consideration of Bill C-45 is a common perspective of the problems the Bill is designed to address.  There has been a little bit of push-back on this from those who would likely want to make the case that Bill C-45 would magically create these problems rather than acknowledging that it is designed to address them. I think we are getting past that.

  • Here are several important areas of consensus on cannabis in Canada

Canadians are among the highest consumers of cannabis globally, and this is especially so for young Canadians. According to the Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey (CTADS), in 2015, 21% of Canadians age 15-19 and 30% of Canadians age 20-24 have used cannabis in the past 12-months.  The more recent Canadian Cannabis Survey, mentioned above, suggests that these consumption rates might be higher.

Cannabis can be harmful. The harms associated with cannabis are front-and-centre in the federal Government`s rationale for proposing the legalization and strict regulation of cannabis. A Health Canada Report on the health impacts of cannabis makes this strikingly clear.

Cannabis is particularly harmful for younger people who consume the drug frequently and intensively.  There is compelling evidence that cannabis use can affect healthy brain development, starting in the early years and tailing off in the early twenties; school performance and motivation can be affected by regular consumption of the drug; and there is also some evidence associating cannabis with mental health issues and psychosis, as there is with alcohol and mental health issues. 

However, an association between drugs and mental health does not demonstrate causality. We know that young people with pre-existing mental health issues often self-medicate using drugs and alcohol.  We also know that the prevalence of late-teen psychosis was recognized long before the explosion of cannabis use in North America in the early 1970`s.  Some balance is therefore necessary.

As harmful as cannabis is, it has consistently proven to be less harmful at a population level than alcohol or tobacco. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, there were over 5,000 alcohol-attributable deaths in Canada in 2015 and more hospital admissions for alcohol-related conditions (77,000) than for heart attacks. 

As part of an effort to address the harms of cannabis the government has committed $45.6 million for public education and harm reduction programming, in addition to partnering with organizations like Drug Free Kids Canada.

Additionally, cannabis has proven helpful in relieving a number of health issues, including multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, PTSD, chronic pain, insomnia and anxiety. It is also used to manage nausea and weight loss in cancer care. Some of these issues are relieved by a non-psychoactive component of cannabis (CBD).

  • Recreational cannabis is sourced entirely from Canada`s massive illegal market.

Alongside tackling public health concerns, Bill C-45 is also designed to disrupt the country’s illegal cannabis market which is valued at between $6 Billion to $7 billion annually.  This cannabis is untested for contaminants and potency, and is reported to be sometimes tainted by more dangerous drugs. Police report a growing involvement of organized crime in this market. 

Bill C-45 proposes that this market be disrupted and replaced over time with a safe and quality-controlled supply of legal cannabis, with strict regulation of its production, distribution and consumption. This would build on Canada’s lengthy experience in regulating access to medical cannabis.  

Legal cannabis would only be available to those over age 18 or 19 (determined provincially).  This will require both an investment in additional enforcement ($274 million has been announced to-date), and ensuring that the price of legal cannabis is calibrated with costs in the illegal market, which are currently estimated at between $7.50 and $8.50 per gram, with prices varying across the country.  While Canadians might be prepared to pay more for a product that is quality-controlled and labelled for potency and other characteristics, these prices must be roughly comparable in order to effectively disrupt the illegal market.

  • Provinces and Territories are opting to prohibit any access to Canadians below the age of 18

Bill C-45 would, subject to provincial/territorial adjustments, permit a young person under 18 to possess up to 5 grams of legal cannabis. This was part of an overall effort to reduce the impact of criminal records on young people who are charged with relatively minor possession offences.  But it was very clear that this latitude was at the discretion of provinces and territories.  This “5 gram allowance” has attracted a lot of attention.

Over the past several months, provinces and territories have been establishing their own implementation legislation, and have been doing this in a quite precautionary way.  Thus far Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories have chosen to reject the 5 gram allowance, so there would be no legal access to cannabis by anyone under 18 or 19.  We are seeing an obvious trend towards tighter rules governing access to cannabis by younger Canadians.  

Next:  In the coming weeks I will look at the proposal to allow cannabis to be grown at home.  Did you know that Canadians over age 18 can legally grow up to 15 kilograms of tobacco for personal use?  Other topics will include International Drug Conventions, and how legalization is working in U.S. States.