In the media, and especially social media, there seems to be this polarization. Cannabis is either this evil thing we need to ban and put people in jail for, or it's a cure-all. It's neither of those things.
Substance use researcher clears the smoke around cannabis legalization
UAlberta expert to dispel marijuana myths and weigh the best policy options for Alberta in free public lecture this week.
By GEOFF McMASTER
With cannabis legalization quickly approaching, there is considerable hype around the entrepreneurial opportunity it will offer growers and distributors, the tax revenue that could fall to federal and provincial coffers, and any number of therapeutic benefits awaiting consumers.
But substance use researcher Elaine Hyshka says Alberta needs to keep the focus where it belongs—on the public health implications of a policy change the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations.
"I think across Canada there has not been enough emphasis on public health,” she said, “and I think that's really unfortunate, because we don't want to make the same mistakes with cannabis that we have made with alcohol.”
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Legalization gives Alberta a golden opportunity to put “the public interest and public health first over profit and industry," she said.
Though Hyshka fully supports legalizing cannabis—noting that she and her colleagues have been calling for it “for a very long time”—there is a long way to go before science can properly gauge the long-term harms and benefits of the drug. And much public knowledge still tends to be dominated by misinformation, she noted.
"In the media, and especially social media, there seems to be this polarization. Cannabis is either this evil thing we need to ban and put people in jail for, or it's a cure-all. It's neither of those things.”
To help provide clarity and perspective on a complex issue, Hyshka will give a free public lecture Thursday called “Legalizing Cannabis: Clearing the Smoke.” In addition to debunking misconceptions about legalization and what it will mean for public health, she will compare some of the approaches different provinces have taken so far.
“This can be scary to some people,” she said. “We've all been socialized and educated growing up that you ban drugs because they're bad, but that's really simplistic and unhelpful.
“Because it's been illegal, we've never really had a great opportunity to study it. Research into medical and therapeutic purposes, and into harm, have been largely stalled. Legalizing provides an opportunity for us all to develop a much better understanding (of the implications of cannabis use).”
Hyshka says Canadians have learned some “tough lessons” from tobacco and alcohol policies over the years that have at times turned a blind eye to public health. Alcohol distribution in Alberta, especially, has been “too commercialized and too much focused on retail sales and profit,” she said, which ends up promoting harm.
“If the government isn’t careful, I worry we’ll see lax regulation in terms of density of outlets, types of sales, marketing and loose hours. There are a lot of problems with how we retail alcohol now."
Policies on the sale and marketing of cannabis should draw from the current tobacco model, she said, with strict prohibitions on advertising and even clear health information on packaging.
"It’s commendable that the (proposed) federal Cannabis Act has a pretty strict set of regulations on advertising, and it seems Alberta will follow those. It’s important that consumers receive reliable and accurate information about the products they're purchasing, but that should not be at the expense of branding and marketing tools that promote use.
"I know that some people are really cautious about (legalization)—they don't know what it means … but I'm hoping these fears will be assuaged when cannabis is finally legalized,” she said.
“If there are unintended harms or negative consequences of legalization, I’m optimistic that our governments will have the will, mandate and ability to address them very quickly."