Clearing the air on cannabis

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.”