Psycho Active Politics: Marijuana, Science and the Politics of Change: Part 3
“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
– Carl Sagan
In Part 1 of this series, I reviewed the history and cultural context for the criminalization of marijuana in Canada, examined the science of sensimilla, and described the joint work of the pharmaceutical industry, media and medical profession in outlawing cannabis. In Part 2, I looked at the failed war on drugs and the changing social and political climate around legislation and the legalization debate heading into the federal election campaign of 2015. In this Part 3, the final part in the series, I examine the economics of the marijuana industry and address the potential health hazards associated with marijuana use. The goal of the series was to provide a new public health and education basis for a shift in policy and legislation. We need a national campaign to end criminalization, minimize the social costs, harvest the medical benefits and stimulate the economic development that the emerging legal cannabis industry promises.
Market Size and Value of Marijuana
As of April 1st, 2014 Tweed Inc., one of the recently licensed Canadian medical marijuana grow ops, began selling shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange. That means that the public can now invest legally in marijuana in Canada. And this is only the beginning. According to the RAND Corporation’s 2009 Report, marijuana accounts for .3% of the Canadian economy. A 2004 Fraser Institute study estimated the British Columbia marijuana market at between 2 and 4% of B.C.’s economy. By comparison, each of the forestry and the oil and gas industries accounts for about 3% of B.C.’s economy, making the already world famous B.C. Bud, an economic powerhouse and global brand to be reckoned with.
According to the cover story of the Globe’s Report on Business on March 27th 2014, “The Canadian medical marijuana industry will be worth somewhere between $120 million and $220 million in the first year following privatization of the new medical marijuana regime”. But Health Canada estimates that within a decade, the marketplace, now with only about 40,000 doctor-prescribed patients, will grow to at least 400,000 registered patients, generating annual sales of some $3.1 billion… and an estimated new tax base of between $150 and $300 million dollars annually. These new beans in the financial barrel are generating hot debate about possible uses of the new tax money and promises of funding for deficit reductions and new health and social programs. Speculators believe that this number could multiply to over $500 million once you include the savings realized by cancelling failed law enforcement programs, and migrating towards public health and education or full legalization.
As a punctuation to the projections in Canada, it’s also helpful to take note of the politics and economics of cannabis south of the border. As we open the debate further in Canada, the U.S. results provide a snapshot of the social costs and potential gain from the cannabis industry. Based on new science and the economic realities of an industry that thrives – with or without government approval – the March 27th Globe piece states that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper projected $1 billion dollars in sales over the next year with more than 60% ($610 Million) coming from recreational pot use alone. And according to ArcView Market Research, the cannabis industry in the U.S. will expand to about $10 billion by 2018. Even by conservative estimates, the next decade will see the Canadian homegrown market grow to somewhere in the ballpark of $3 – $5 billion annually.
Law Enforcement’s Gain Means Big Losses for Canadian Health Care
It’s estimated that the funds mis-spent on marijuana law enforcement in Canada is easily in the range of $500 million to $1 billion. According to a recent MacLean’s magazine article, Canadian researchers Gerald Thomas of the Centre for Addictions Research, B.C. and Chris Davis an analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, put the numbers to the test and found the following health and social costs, which are unwittingly paid by Canadian taxpayers:
- The cost of tobacco-related health costs are on average more than $800 per smoker.
- Alcohol-related health costs are on average about $165 per alcohol drinker.
- Cannabis-related health costs are on average around $20 per user.
- Law enforcement costs for alcohol are $153 per user.
- Law enforcement costs for cannabis are $328 per user.
The conclusion is staggering: 94% of the financial cost to Canadians for marijuana is the result of keeping it illegal ! Another nail in the coffin of the failed Conservative policies is this: according to the same MacLean’s article, of the 10,000 Canadians surveyed in 2013, fully 25% of Canadians are “at risk” of health problems due to alcohol consumption alone ! By contrast, only 9% of Canadians have consumed weed in the past 12 months. And science and health analysts have yet to prove any real harm to adult users of cannabis, other than the social stigma and legal prejudice suffered by those charged with marijuana ‘crimes’.
Why “Officer Discretion” is a Bad Idea:
The Harper Conservatives have been narrow-minded prohibitionists forever. They have even gone so far as to accuse Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of planning an agenda to get our kids hooked on dope. So the recent flip-flop of Harper and Mackay following the Canadian Police Chiefs’ new ‘officer discretion’ proposal should be seen for what it is: yet another short-sighted, partisan policy that continues to inflate law enforcement, and crime and prison budgets while ignoring the health of our young people, the unjustifiable costs, and basic principles of justice. Crime and punishment thinking also misses the opportunity to create a wellness-based policy platform on marijuana, and the health driven leadership agenda Canadians deserve. This is fast becoming a key health, youth and economic development issue heading into the next election, but it requires a new active engagement by a resolved voting public in order to become policy.
Granting a new ‘officer discretion’ while maintaining marijuana as a criminal code offense, is a bad idea for several reasons. First, there is already a well-documented history of class, race, region and personality-based bias through which officers dispense justice. When they are given a broad personal discretion to either criminalize or ignore someone possessing small amounts of marijuana, the officer’s own subjectivity can play out in disastrous ways for certain populations. Systemic and behavioural bias will always remain unseen and unchecked, and will continue to inform and mis-shape the way law enforcement decides to charge some, and not others. Those who have any history with police and law enforcement know that someone of an ‘identified group’, who appears scruffy in attire or who, to the arresting officer, is displaying an irreverent disposition, will likely be criminally charged more often than a businessman reading a newspaper while smoking a joint in the park after work. Why should that be acceptable? Important work done by both the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System (1995), and by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation between 2005 and 2010 provide ample research on at least one category – race – to have a rational basis of skepticism, for any regime of law enforcement that hands over the decision of whether or not to criminalize an individual, to the arresting officer.
Similarly, statistics supported by Burnaby Mayor and former criminal defense attorney Derek Corrigan and criminologist Neil Boyd, reveal why discretionary enforcement isn’t predictable. With charge rates in British Columbia ranging from 20 per 100,000 to 588 per 100,000 across various jurisdictions, he says, we see a disturbing correlation between attitude and disposition and the likelihood of being charged criminally. Simply put, you cannot cure the current confusion about what to do about marijuana, by legislating more confusion.
Hazards in the Science and Sociology Surrounding Marijuana
All prudent policy arguments, opinions, and business decisions must take into account not only the possible revenue and medical benefits, but also the social costs and impact of a permissive cannabis policy, and the risks to public health, youth, public safety and social order.
While most scientific evidence suggests that marijuana has compelling medicinal qualities, it is important to maintain a vigilant and safety-centred debate around the health issue. The goal should not be to rush legislation or railroad cannabis into acceptance but to force the beginning of a truly open, scientific debate on the merits and risks associated with proper and improper use of marijuana. The following is a summary of some of the more significant issues of concern that could accompany a more progressive marijuana policy and legislation.
How Will a Marijuana-Positive Environment Affect Children and Teenagers?
We need to thoroughly examine the risk of facilitating a more permissive message and legal atmosphere, for the ways that it may affect our youth. Young people are particularly at risk of developing an unhealthy relationship to cannabis if it is introduced while they are still growing and developing. Weed is too available as a distraction from homework and a teenager’s other important responsibilities to pretend it doesn’t exist. And research shows that more prevention activity and public education needs to be carried out while young people are establishing their habits, identity and comfort levels, given the natural risks that accompany greater social freedom, self-supervision and constant peer pressure. In addition, based on research released in 2011, there may be some risk that certain populations face in developing neurological disorders such as schizophrenia if cannabis is introduced early on in a young person’s life. Although more recent studies at Harvard Medical School appear to debunk those early concerns, the point to hold close at heart is this: we need much more extensive, long term studies to examine the problem and the real health issues that might exist. Only an environment of open research and funding will clear away the hyperbole and facilitate our crafting of a more enlightened public policy. One based not on hysteria or sensationalized media, but on science.
Many critics of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana hang their arguments on sharp hooks and personal attacks, suggestion that marijuana’s proponents are somehow undercover pedlars of addiction to our youth. The Conservative Party position on Trudeau prior to March 5th, 2014, is an example. However, after being chided by Canadian Police Chiefs, the Cons have now changed their tune and may be adopting a discretionary ticketing option for individuals carrying a small amount of weed. Could this be the final nail in the coffin of their rusty argument, based on an invented fear of sending the wrong message to our children? Much of the ‘crime and punishment’ rhetoric and attack ads around cannabis are based solely on fear-mongering rather than on reasoned consideration or fact. But as honest observation, history and solid social science proves, PROHIBITION HAS FAILED OUR CHILDREN ! A UNICEF Report in April 2013 confirmed that Canadian teenagers smoke more weed than any other teenagers in the world per capita … and that is during – and thanks to – Harper’s ‘tough on crime’ regime and the most repressive anti-marijuana period in our history. Fear simply doesn’t work as a deterrent for youth who are thinking of experimenting with the herb. According to Vancouver M.P. Joyce Murray, “our current laws are creating much more harm than good” and suggests, along with legalization, we should use ‘specialty private stores’ such as LCBO locations as dispensaries, like Washington State. According to Murray, the other aim is to make weed less expensive and higher quality in order to eliminate the organized crime involvement and develop the medicinal and commercial potential of a pro-cannabis policy.
Here are some other suggestions about how we might insure that safety, health and wellbeing are kept first in our minds and our children’s choices. At the same time we can promote the responsible use of certain psychoactive compounds, and only under very strict conditions of permissiveness:
- Prohibition for anyone under 19 (or 21 depending on the research). Policy implementation and drafting legislation requires some sophistication to deal with different effects and risks for different populations. Whether we’re legislating sex work laws, alcohol consumption, army enlistment, or property ownership, let’s be vigilant. We have to separatte what freedoms we choose for ourselves as adults and what freedoms and restrictions are appropriate for minors, children, and young adults whose biology – in particular their brain and nervous systems – are still developing.
- It’s easier now for young people to buy weed since its in the hands of criminal dealers, who are unlicensed, exclusively profit-driven, hidden, predatory, and sometimes violent. Legalizing and regulating marijuana will make it as hard to get as alcohol. Clearly the presence of any drug in society means some level of access by youth, but the shift away from the criminal element and towards a regulated, licensed and inspected dispensary, which is open, visible and accountable to the community will place significantly more barriers to getting marijuana for potential underage users. Youth consumption is significantly less in countries like Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands who have adopted a more permissive, proof-of-age regulatory environment.
And to re-iterate some perspective on the down side of recreational use by teenagers, cannabis is still far less toxic and non-lethal, compared to prescription drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. More research will clarify the schizophrenia connection, if any, however in the interim, keep in mind, no one has ever died from pot use in and of itself.
Marijuana Addiction is a Real Thing. What Do We Know About It and how Do We Avoid or Reduce the Effects and Presence of it?
The reality is that 10% of users become addicted to marijuana, which might be physiologically milder than hard drug addiction, but sometimes comes with a heavy social and psychological cost to the affected person. A policy of addiction and harm reduction, demands vigilance in our education, prevention and support efforts. Some suggestions are:
a. screen for at-risk youth in the public school system and through the family doctor.
b. carry out aggressive public health and education programs to steer at-risk youth away from marijuana. Using engaged support and open discussion about the risks will help at-risk youth to avoid the drug and the peer pressure that leads them to compromise their health in order to ‘fit in’;
c. assess the type and extent of individual or relationship harm to the individual and develop healthy harm-reduction strategies that recognize the unique or familiar challenges young people face in using or avoiding marijuana;
d. though generally milder in effects, withdrawal from heavy marijuana use can include sleeplessness, loss of appetite, inflammation, irritability, social isolation and/or depression. It all depends on the individual however, as ending marijuana use can also have positive effects, such as greater clarity and focus. The complexities abound, but government funded education and support programs should be financed with public funds derived from the legal cannabis tax revenue, to help teenagers break and/or cope with the addiction and lifestyle change. Funds for addiction research, counselling, lifestyle and peer support could form a solid foundation of harm-reduction and health policy. Ending the greatest harm of all – the senseless criminalization of young people because of marijuana use – must be a priority. Replacing the current regime with a more effective health and recovery based model of addiction, will allow the young person a real chance to end the addiction. Political leadership needs to steer the issue away from the associated criminal stigma and towards restoring their lives to healthy balance. That’s just good public policy.
f. Again, to keep the possible harm in context, compare the 10% addiction rate for marijuana with the 15-20% addiction rate for alcohol users, 30% for cigarettes and 20% for cocaine. Sugar addiction and related obesity and heart disease cost Canadians millions annually in health care costs and account for thousands of deaths each year. Marijuana will create millions of dollars in revenue and no deaths, ever. A level-headed commitment to public health, wellness and recovery, not jail or panic should guide our public cannabis policy now and in the future.
How do we regulate, restrict and enforce a decriminalized or legalized marijuana environment?
Good sense and science suggests that we look to Colorado, Washington, Ecuador, Europe and other places around the world that are either legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana use. We have time to work this out and take cues from those jurisdictions that are ahead of us in a commitment to science and a more thoughtful public policy.
Discuss the ‘unmotivated stoner’ argument: explore any link between cannabis use and socio-psychological or economic consequences.
I will defer to Ken MacQueen’s wisdom in his MacLean’s article on this one:
“There are also unmotivated drunks, cigarette smokers and milk drinkers. Studies have ruled out “the existence of the so-called amotivational syndrome,” the Senate report noted a decade ago. Generations of pot smokers from the Boomers onward have somehow held it together, building families and careers. Miraculously, the last three U.S. presidents managed to lift themselves beyond their admitted marijuana use to seek the highest office in the land. Once there, they forgot whence they came, and continued the war on drugs.”
Discuss the Physiological Side-effects in Some Individuals or Populations.
Possible short-term negative effects for some users of cannabis include drowsiness, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, mild anxiety, paranoia or panic reactions, delayed reaction time, increased appetite, and impaired short-term memory. Longer-term effects of using cannabis can include reduced competitiveness and combativeness, and in some heavy users, sometimes a lack of concentration, interference with school and job performance and respiratory problems related to heavy smoking.
Some common sense guidelines have been suggested to minimize any possible adverse side-effects from marijuana in individuals with little or no history with using it:
a. it’s suggested that all first time usage should be administered by smoking, rather than ingesting edibles or tinctures. Most anecdotal evidence suggests that side-effects or physiological over-reactions occur most frequently when pot-infused baked goods or other edibles are used. Smoking small amounts more clearly and gradually introduces the psychoactive elements with easier dosage control than the delay-onset and heavier concentration that can occur by devouring a tray of cookies or brownies in one sitting.
b. always try it with a friend and in a safe and familiar environment of familiarity with supportive people who are aware that it’s a new experience and possibly carries unpleasant or unexpected bioactive results. Often, remaining calm and talking through anxieties or unexpected physiological effects are more than enough to eliminate panic and its consequences and guide the user through a safe, supportive experience.
c. read and educate yourself before using marijuana and consult with an experienced doctor or professional who is familiar with the range of effects that might be experienced in a new user. Understanding what to expect often eliminates the anxiety and over-reaction that can occur with people ingesting cannabinoids for the first time.
d. acquiring the plant from a person with whom you have an established relationship or from a reputable dispensary minimizes the risk from ingesting bad weed or weed that has been sprayed with harmful substances in growing or to mask the scent or mold caused by shipping, moisture, etc.
e. implementation of test sites at clinics and hospitals are advisable so that a new consumer can be monitored by nurses, relax and have the experience while being reassured and supported in the event of unpleasant side-effects.
f. research the chemistry and bio density of active compounds in different strains in order to minimize the risk of unknown side effects. Be aware that with so many different species or cultivars of cannabis, there is a wide range to choose from, some with very mild effects… others with surprisingly strong and rapid changes in consciousness and other side-effects.
What is ‘the schizophrenic ‘trigger’ argument?
Some studies have drawn a connection between marijuana use in certain adolescent populations and the earlier onset of schizophrenia. More recently however, an extensive Harvard Medical School research paper has concluded that there is no clear or consistent link scientifically, between smoking weed during childhood or adolescence and schizophrenia. An intelligent response to this requires us to look to a more open and well-funded science and research commitment that will untangle the web of complexity. Factors such as family history, the possible pre-existence of a psychotic disorder, nutrition, lifestyle, and other social and environmental factors must also be considered. Emotions don’t make good policy, though fear-peddling often means clever political tactics in elections fought mostly though sensationalized media and partisan posturing. Science is the answer, but to date, in Canada there has been no political will or budget provided to assess the real long-term benefits and/or harm caused by cannabis. Research being conducted throughout Europe, Australia, and Israel are showing great promise in developing a more sophisticated understanding of what the parameters are of safe use. Government funded, voter-demanded Canadian research must find a mandate in order to shed important light on the appropriate applications and policies going forward.
Discuss Marijuana as a so-called “Gateway Drug”
Many, like Norm Stamper, retired former Police Chief of Seattle, believe that alcohol is the real menacing gateway drug. Strong evidence also suggests that, not use, but marijuana prohibition is the gateway to alcohol. By criminalizing weed and pushing young people toward alcohol – the same drug as their parents (25% of whom are already at risk of developing alcohol-related health problems) and away from marijuana – we’re guaranteeing far greater health risks than any research has ever concluded about cannabis.
And finally, referring again to that multi-party Senate Report of 2002 for guidance, the report concluded after conducting extensive cross-country hearings and research the following about the “gateway” theory:
“Thirty years’ experience in the Netherlands disproves this clearly, as do the liberal policies in Spain, Italy and Portugal… And here in Canada, despite the growing increase in cannabis users [at the time of the report], we have not had a proportionate increase in users of hard drugs.”
Health Canada confirmed in 2011 that the use of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and ecstasy are all at lower rates than in 2004. And finally, in a study that may prove fatal to the fictitious ‘gateway’ argument by prohibitionists, a RAND study commissioned by the White House in 2013, concluded that, between the years 2006 and 2010 marijuana use “increased by up to a third, while cocaine and methamphetamine use has decreased by 50% !” While we cannot infer that marijuana caused any decline in harder drugs, these statistics are compelling enough to require more top-level research without delay and to eliminate any non-science-based assumption that marijuana leads to harder drugs.
High times, they are a’changin’. Political debate around cannabis law and culture is heating up like a cherry coal in a dry Blunt. Whereas marijuana was systematically criminalized and separated from science research in the twentieth century, wise politicians and a globally networked public are learning the truth about weed: that, with exceptions for particular populations, it is not toxic, but medicinal; that marijuana research has been all but banned in Canada for the last century to our scientific and political detriment; that marijuana is safely enjoyed recreationally by millions in Canada and tens of millions worldwide; that there are no deaths from pot and, to the contrary, it seems to be saving the lives of a growing number with specific medical conditions, such as cancer; that the war on marijuana is a social failure and an economic money-pit with no upside to taxpayers or their children; and that police officers are tired of wasting taxpayer money and law enforcement and court time by arresting and charging weed smokers.
Last Friday, we learned weed stock is now being sold on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The public can now invest. The Canadian marijuana market is estimated to be between $1 billion and $3 billion and can save taxpayers millions more over the next few years if we end the wasteful war on marijuana. New permissive medical marijuana legislation means that the medical marijuana market alone will likely increase to almost half a million Canadians in the next decade. Officer discretion is a bad idea and will cause more confusion and harm than good. Personal bias and uneven application by law enforcement will continue to result in the failure to reduce or even affect marijuana consumption, other than to drive it further underground. The weed-crime syndrome will still result in many individuals being permanently criminalized for simply possessing the herb without a clear, consistent non-criminal mandate for marijuana legislation.
The drug war has miserably failed our youth and leaves Canada with the highest percentage of adolescent marijuana users in the world. The health and wellbeing of our young people is paramount. Certain populations may be especially at risk with marijuana use and should be screened and supported to choose healthy alternatives for recreation and medical relief. We need to expand the funding base and broaden our scope and commitment to cannabis research. We have to demand that our elected officials make the cannabis medicine and industry a priority in the approaching federal election. And as citizens, parents and taxpayers, we must educate ourselves. The resources are vast and available online and we should study them to get clarity, making solid science the new basis for law and public policy on the issue of marijuana, taking into account its biomedical, social and political complexities.
The majority of Canadians say that decriminalizing weed is the minimum. Strong advocates say that legalizing it is an even wiser use of this precious and renewable resource. So far there’s no compelling scientific, social, medical or economic reason why it should be a crime or remain illegal. Addiction screening, health and psychological counselling, and safe trial consumption clinics should be available to educate and acclimatize people to the bioactivity of marijuana’s many strains. Gathering research and disseminating scientific understanding of the psychoactive compounds in cannabis will allow doctors and dispensaries to personalize and optimize marijuana prescriptions and experiences and safeguard medical protocols based on illness, history, body type and personal preference. Extensive health, social network and public education campaigns should be mandatory in on and offline communities, schools, dispensaries, medical clinics… and at home ! We have the benefit of newly-legal marijuana jurisdictions like Colorado, Washington and Ecuador to learn from.
With an expanding science commitment worldwide, and development of a Canadian-based cannabis research environment, we will learn valuable lessons and insights. This will allow us to carefully and thoughtfully renew our policy commitment and expand the cultural space that marijuana occupies in Canada. Looking to our weed-positive neighbours, we might avoid their errors and systemic shortcomings, as scientists, legislators, law enforcement and communities work towards eliminating the criminal element and satisfying hearts and minds that cannabis is a manageable resource and medical asset. In this way, our seedling cannabis industry can minimize health hazards to our youth and other consumers, while developing a safe and economically sound leading edge to an important new and growing industry.