Updated: Nov 28, 2020

As familiar faces filled the usual Bathurst Street coffeeshop, this month’s Women Grow event, a networking night for women in the cannabis industry, seemed like any other. But this time, there was one important difference.

“This is the first event since having a government that’s going to legalize and regulate cannabis…”

Whistles and a roar of applause immediately filled the room as keynote speaker Nazlee Maghsoudi kicked off the event. Justin Trudeau wasn’t the only one celebrating his victory.

So, too, were the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a youth advocacy group and host of the event. Part of a larger network of Students for Sensible Drug Policy founded in the United States in 1998, this grassroots organization looks at the impact of drug laws on younger generations, and encourages evidence-based drug policy reform.

According to CSSDP vice chair Jenna Valleriani, many of Canada’s current drug policies are “based on political rhetoric” instead of legitimate scientific evidence which, according to CSSDP, doesn’t prove that drugs like cannabis are as harmful as many say they are. The Liberal party’s support for the legalization and regulation of cannabis use, along with its victory, are steps toward changing this.

“We [CSSDP] are excited to see cannabis be properly regulated,” Valleriani says. “It’ll have a lot of positive outcomes.”

The most positive of all being the opportunity to give people a choice and, as Valleriani puts it, “more liberty to do what [they] want.”

In fact, legalization seems to be what a majority of people want. According to a poll conducted by Forum Research Inc. this year, well over 50 per cent of citizens across the country support the legalization of marijuana.

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(the poll was carried out from November 4 to 7, 2015 in an interactive voice response telephone survey involving 1,256 Canadian residents ages 18 and older, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20)

Interestingly enough however, numbers have fallen significantly in comparison to a poll conducted just four years ago.

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(the poll was carried out December 13, 2011 in an interactive voice response telephone survey involving 1,160 Canadian residents ages 18 and older, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20)

This decline in support over the years is likely due to apprehension towards cannabis thanks to the many myths surrounding its use.

According to Ryerson psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Todd Girard, there are both benefits and drawbacks to using marijuana.

For the most part, its use has proven effective in combatting pain, reducing nausea, and treating glaucoma. Research is even suggesting it may be beneficial in small doses for psychological disorders like anxiety or depression.

Despite this, Girard warns that constant use in high doses “does have cognitive-impairing effects.”

This is thanks to the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When consumed, this compound instantly binds to cannabinoid receptors, many of which are in the brain. Its ability to mimic anandamide—a chemical responsible for coordination, regulating mood, suppressing pain, and forming memories—leads the brain to mistake it for such, resulting in a chemical imbalance. With chronic use, this can lead to a weaker memory and slower reaction time, among other things.

But with effects varying from person to person, it’s difficult to assess just how harmful cannabis can be.

“It gets debatable on how big and long-lasting these effects are,” Girard says. “It really just depends on individual factors.

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With such an unclear understanding of the exact effects of cannabis on the human body comes an unclear understanding of the impact its legalization and regulation will have on Canadians.

Many questions surround a potential increase in access and usage with the legalization of cannabis. Valleriani, however, is doubtful that anything will change.

“Cannabis is already one of the most widely accessed drugs today,” she says. “I don’t think the illegal status really makes a difference to access or not.”

Girard agrees, pointing to the latest trends in usage just south of the border.

“There have been some recent changes in the U.S. where certain states have legalized,” he says, “and so far, they’re not showing any significant increase in use.”

He’s right. While research shows an overall increase in cannabis use in Colorado and America as a whole throughout the years—especially among 18 to 25 year-olds—it isn’t by very much.

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There’s also been speculation on how legalization will impact students in school. Aside from the elimination of fines and academic penalties for possession of small amounts, members of CSSDP predict that the legalization of cannabis will provide students with a safer way of coping with stress and letting loose.

“Cannabis can be a form of harm reduction for people,” says CSSDP outreach director Lisa Campbell. “Making it legal means that students have other options.”

Maghsoudi, who is also on the CSSDP board of directors, agrees.

“[Legalization] will provide…an alternative to alcohol,” she says. “There are definitely benefits associated with that.”

Seeing as no other country has officially legalized the use of marijuana, it’s difficult to anticipate the effects this will have. This makes education on its use that much more important.

In this respect, Maghsoudi acknowledges that there’s still a long way to go. But for now, she and the rest of CSSDP are celebrating an unprecedented victory.

“It’s about time.”

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

While the recent release of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy from an Egyptian prison may mean the end of one battle for freedom, another is just beginning—this time, for that of expression.

Fahmy, 41, made his fight for freedom of expression in the media clear Tuesday morning at a press conference held at Ryerson University. The former Al Jazeera bureau chief called for greater protection of press freedom by the Canadian government, citing the country’s “democratic atmosphere,” and encouraged the rejection of laws that threaten this freedom everywhere.

“If we [Canadians] believe in a free press…we need to defend it,” Fahmy said. “We must fight against such [restrictive] laws, wherever they are.”

The conference, hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, was Fahmy’s first public appearance in Canada since his arrest for broadcasting what an Egyptian court called “false news” that promoted the recently outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian police first arrested Fahmy, along with two other reporters also working for the Al Jazeera English television network, in December 2013. All three faced terror-related charges for airing material believed to threaten the country’s security.

After a trial and retrial process that lasted nearly two years, an Egyptian court settled on a three-year sentence for Fahmy in August—this was after he had already spent over 400 days in a Cairo maximum security prison. The Egyptian native described his cell as covered in bugs and without access to sunlight. He was also nursing a fractured shoulder at the time.

But what made matters worse was that, in Fahmy’s eyes, no crime had been committed in the first place.

The journalist said he was wrongfully imprisoned for expressing the news. What he believed was accurate, unbiased reporting was instead seen as a threat to the government and ultimately resulted in his imprisonment.

Though Fahmy was eventually pardoned of all charges by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Sept. 23 and released from prison later that day, his case raised many questions about the balancing of different rights.

The Egyptian government held that its right to limit press freedom for the maintenance of what it viewed as public security should be given priority. But for Fahmy, power should ultimately lie with the journalist.

“No government should be permitted to restrict press freedom to serve its own political agenda,” he said.

It is evident that Fahmy was taking a page from Canada’s more democratic laws, specifically Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to freedom of the press to all Canadians.

Despite this guarantee in legislation, the Canadian government failed to come to Fahmy’s aid once this right had been threatened by the Egyptian government. And for the journalist, this was the biggest disappointment of all.

According to Fahmy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper failed to realize the urgency of his case and should have done more to intervene.

“You want to know your government is fully behind you,” he said. “It was hard not to feel betrayed and abandoned [by Harper].”

Fahmy, joined by his wife and legal team on a panel, said the prime minister refused to speak with his international lawyer, Amal Clooney, as well as Canadian lawyers about the case.

Even after receiving an open letter with the signatures of about 300 Canadians, all requesting that the prime minister intervene, Harper instead referred the case to lower-ranking government officials who were not able to help.

A Toronto Star article cited that Harper did, however, get in touch with the Egyptian president. Fahmy said if that was the case, he is “thankful,” but would have liked to see more disclosure. The journalist insisted on greater leader-to-leader communication following these kinds of arrests, and that officials be more transparent about their efforts.

“The Canadian government should start implementing a more open approach rather than quiet diplomacy,” he said.

Fahmy also blasted former foreign affairs minister John Baird for his assurance at a press conference that the journalist would not be put on trial in Canada should he be deported. Since Egyptian officials wanted this as a deportation condition, any chance Fahmy had of being released at the time was virtually ruined.

Along with his criticism of the Canadian government, Fahmy also discussed a lawsuit he launched against former employer Al Jazeera, citing improper and dangerous journalistic practices.

At his retrial, it was discovered that Fahmy and his colleagues had been working with an expired broadcasting license, even after being assured multiple times beforehand that it was valid.

“There can be no doubt that Al Jazeera endangered me and my team on the ground,” Fahmy said.

As a result, the journalist launched a $100-million lawsuit against the network.

“No news network should be permitted to compromise journalistic ethics or the safety of its journalists,” he said.

Despite the lack of support from his government and employer at the time, Fahmy said he was blown away by the encouragement received from regular citizens.

The journalist believed he was back in Canada thanks to the efforts of Canadians across the country, from those who simply tweeted to those who wrote articles advocating for his return. He repeatedly thanked Canadians for their support and called it “unprecedented.”

“If you ever doubt that these campaigns make a difference, I’m living proof that they do,” Fahmy said.

He also thanked organizations like CJFE for contributing to his cause by helping pay for legal fees, and said that “now, [these groups] have inspired me.”

Fahmy recently launched a foundation that will campaign for the release of and provide financial aid to other imprisoned journalists with cases similar to his. He listed a number of reporters currently behind bars in the Middle East, including Vice magazine’s Mohammed Ismael Rasool. These people are often innocent, Fahmy said, facing charges of terror simply for accurate reporting.

“I’d like to turn the spotlight on these people,” he said, “and bring a personal approach to what they’re going though.”

Fahmy also called on the Egyptian government to not only pardon more of these journalists, but to “revisit [its] laws and differentiate between terrorists and reporters.”

While he does intend to visit the Middle East again, Fahmy said he will continue to advocate for the protection and release of imprisoned journalists from Vancouver for now, having recently accepted a teaching position at the University of British Columbia.

In the mean time, the journalist said, he hopes that others learn from his experience and continue to fight for freedom.

“There’s an unprecedented wave of terrorism,” Fahmy said. “But that doesn’t mean the so-called ‘war on terror’ will be used to clamp on our civil liberties.”

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

“Good luck!”

Second-year business management student Brenda Truong hands out one last exam tip sheet before ending her shift for the evening.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday.

After a long day of lectures, capped off with a shift at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers Student Resource Centre, an exhausted Truong is ready to head home.

For many students, balancing school with work is a tough reality. But it’s because of her employment experience now that Truong, who hopes to get into human resources, is confident she’ll get a job in the future.

This makes her part of the 54 per cent of Toronto undergraduate students who feel either confident or very confident that they’ll find employment in their field after graduating, based on a recent poll.

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Conducted by Ryerson’s School of Journalism and political science department in January, the poll surveyed 1,155 students from across institutions such as Ryerson, University of Toronto, George Brown College and OCAD University. The poll is accurate to within plus or minus 2.29 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

As Truong sees it, students feeling optimistic about finding employment are likely older and more mature, having had more time to prepare for their future.

“Upper year [students] probably have more of the knowledge and skills used in the industry,” Truong says. “So they’re confident.”

But others, like Ryan Ostrowski, a first-year performance production student at Ryerson, believe those confident 54 per cent are instead in their first few years of post-secondary education, both naive and “unaware of the challenges [of getting a job].”

According to Caroline Konrad, director of Ryerson’s Career Centre, both theories are equally viable. What's more important to note is the trend emerging in both cases—notably, that students only really begin preparing for their future as they get closer to graduating.

“Too few students engage with career planning in the early stages of schooling,” she says.

This is particularly troubling because it takes more than just a resumé to get a job nowadays, Konrad says, with things like networking skills becoming increasingly valuable.

And students agree.

“My field is really competitive,” Ostrowski says. “So [networking] is very important, especially for an arts student.”

Connections become more desirable in a market where students can expect to hold multiple jobs just to make ends meet— a market that seems to have become a reality today.

According to surveys conducted by Workopolis.com for a report last year, 44 per cent of Canadians have held more than five jobs within a single career, and 59 per cent have pursued at least two different career paths. The polls are accurate to within plus or minus between 1.08 and 1.17 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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If things continue in this direction, Canadians may end up holding an average of 15 jobs throughout their careers.

“Change has become the new norm,” Konrad says.

But with the constant introduction of new jobs, there's light at the end of the tunnel for graduates, the director says. Success, however, will take time, contacts, planning, and hard work.

Her advice to students: start gaining experience as early as possible, like Truong.

“[Getting a job] is an art,” Konrad says. “It’s all about preparation.”