Opinion

NIAGARA VOICES: Resources to prevent cannabis addition must work

By Rick Prins, Niagara Voices

A Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf flies during a rally in support of legalizing marijuana on June 5, 2004, alongside Parliament Hill in Ottawa soon after the Supreme Court of Canada then upheld a decision to keep marijuana as a banned substance. (Donald Weber/Getty Images)

A Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf flies during a rally in support of legalizing marijuana on June 5, 2004, alongside Parliament Hill in Ottawa soon after the Supreme Court of Canada then upheld a decision to keep marijuana as a banned substance. (Donald Weber/Getty Images)

I have to admit, I felt less than enthusiastic a few weeks ago when I heard the Canadian government was going to follow through on its promise to legalize cannabis.

We knew this was an election promise the Liberals were destined to keep. And yet, I did not share the enthusiasm of the activists blowing smoke on camera as the dates for introducing the legislation and the July 2018 implementation were announced.

I am pretty much a law and order kind of citizen. My exposure to cannabis has mainly been limited to the times when I encountered teens smoking in parks, behind high schools or occasionally in high school washrooms. My only addiction, at least what I am willing to admit publicly, is dark roast coffee.

And so as I started writing this article, I realized I carry a lot of preconceptions. Some of these, I discovered as I read and looked at what was being proposed were false. Some of them are concerns I still maintain.

For example, in my mind, to legalize is to normalize. And to normalize is likely to increase availability and usage. I don’t look forward to a day when my freedom to walk around is impeded by those smoking cannabis in public places, as now occasionally happens with tobacco. I assumed (and I know people for whom this is true) cannabis is a starter drug, and some progress to harder drugs. And I know of the devastation the health and social effects cannabis addiction can have.

All of this is coloured by a huge question mark in my mind about the political motivation for this change. It feels like the government is caving into a wild west cannabis culture that took advantage of our current medical cannabis laws, assumed we are in a legal limbo pending future legalization, and have flouted the law by opening up dispensaries that are unregulated and illegal. At the same time, the lucrative nature of a legalized industry and the tax windfall are often mentioned in news reports from other jurisdictions.

My comments here have nothing to do with the medical uses of marijuana. I have no doubt that for many sufferers, cannabis provides them with relief from pain found in no other medication and our laws already support that.

Cannabis is just one substance among many that cause our society huge suffering and cost.

MADD Canada reports that in 2012, 728 Ontarians were killed in traffic fatalities, 14.6 per cent of these were caused by alcohol alone, 30 per cent by drugs alone, and 19 per cent by a combination of drugs and alcohol.

In December 2016, Niagara Regional Police reported an uptick in the number of impaired driving arrests, to 525 from the previous year’s 487.

Niagara Region reports nearly 17 per cent of Niagara youth aged 12 to 19 admit consuming five or more drinks on one occasion. More than 25 per cent of Niagara high school students in grades 9 to 12 admit having used cannabis in the past year, and more than 14 per cent of Niagara high school students report having driven while under the influence of cannabis. Cannabis use statistics for Niagara students are overall higher than provincial averages.

So what possible benefit to Canadian society can come from proposed cannabis legislation?

We can start with the premise that current, restrictive laws are not effective in curbing widespread use and potentially criminalize users. Bringing distribution and use under the law’s umbrella at least gives the government some control over the issue, and potentially gives it more power to mitigate the effects. The proposed law provides for production, distribution and use patterns similar to those currently in place for alcohol and tobacco.

Provinces will have power to set a minimum age for purchase. Restrictions on advertising, packaging, location of sale, co-use with other foods and drugs are part of the legislation. The proposal is to use tax revenue generated to fund administration, education, research and enforcement. Libertarians have complained that the legislation is too restrictive, and no doubt some of the market will continue to operate underground as it currently does. Underage users will continue to find ways to access cannabis as they currently do.

Health Minister Jane Philpott has in recent months announced major new federal funding and initiatives to support mental health programs, as well as help fight the opioid crisis that is exemplified by fentanyl deaths. She points to the need for four pillars in Canada’s drug strategy, these being prevention, treatment, law enforcement and harm reduction.

One would assume that the cannabis legislation has been designed within the overall framework of this strategy. We all realize the limited role of government in influencing social behaviour.

No amount of government regulation, education or influence will completely convince citizens of the dangers of substance abuse. Nevertheless, it is my hope Canadians as a society and as individuals will use all the resources at our disposal to help people cope with the issues in their lives in ways that do not lead to addictions.

— Rick Prins is a Welland resident, a retired educator, works with disabled adults and volunteers with Rose City Kids. He may be reached at rick.niagaravoices@nili.ca.