Why Cannabis Should Not be Legal in Canada.

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Cannabis sativa, a species of Cannabis, is a flowering plant that is used in the creation of marijuana (United States Department of Agriculture, 2011). Although its use has been illegal in Canada since 1923, cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in Canada, and the country has the third highest prevalence rate of marijuana usage in the world (Haines-Saah et al., 2014). Cannabis is often referred to as pot, dope, marijuana, ganja, and hemp and has been classified as a pychotropic drug which acts as a modulator of the central nervous system (Nolin & Kenny, 2002). In Canada, it has been labelled a Schedule II controlled substance, a drug that has a higher than average potential for addiction and abuse (The Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids, 2014).  The illegality of cannabis is a highly debated and controversial subject with many calling for its decriminalization and others suggesting a public health approach to minimize the consequences that follow its use (Haines-Saah et al., 2014).  Decriminalization would involve the removal of a behaviour or activity, in this case cannabis, from the scope of the criminal justice system in which an administrative decision is made to not prosecute acts that nonetheless remain against the law. On the other hand, legalization would involve legislating under a regulatory system the culture, production, marketing, sale and use of a substance (Nolin & Kenny, 2002). The use of cannabis-containing products has been linked to increased respiratory and reproductive health concerns, increased likelihood of psychosis including schizophrenia when used in adolescence. A lack of scientific consensus and knowledge on the long-term health impacts of cannabis would make it difficult to predict what outcomes the legalization of marijuana would have. The decision on whether or not to legalize cannabis should be made solely on the basis of scientific knowledge and not based on public desire, and current research is insufficient to support legalization. The arguments for legalization including lessening the burden on the criminal justice system and lessening exposure to other illegal substances if marijuana was regulated in a similar way to alcohol, are not sufficient to override the health concerns that have been raised. At this time, the benefits shown for patients with chronic conditions including reduced pain and symptoms are enough to support the continued legality of medicinal marijuana if prescribed by a physician and stringent regulations are in place to prevent misuse or abuse. I contend that current scientific evidence supports the continued illegality of cannabis in Canada, but medical marijuana should continue to be available for individuals when prescribed by a health care professional.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC is the active ingredient in marijuana and is thought to produce feelings of relaxation, enhanced sociability, a diminished ability to focus, distorted time and depth perception, and physiological side effects including an increased heart rate, increased appetite, and reddened eyes (Canadian Public Health Association, 2003). While intoxicated It may also result in impairment to short-term memory and attention span, motor skills, skilled activity and reaction time, and anxiety and panic reactions (Hall & Solowij, 1998). Heavy marijuana usage is associated with chronic bronchitis symptoms, development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and is a possible risk factor for the development of lung cancer (Joshi, M., Joshi, A., & Bartter, T 2014).  The dosage of marijuana needed to produce these lung diseases is not yet known and must be further studied. The research on the reproductive effects of cannabis smoking is inconsistent, however, low birth weight babies, impaired sperm production and viability, and behavioural and developmental effects on infants exposed in utero have been suggested as potential consequences of cannabis use (Hall & Solowij, 1998). Long-term use of cannabis can also lead to psychological or physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms when the user is unable to use cannabis (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2010).

The long-term effects of cannabis on the health of the user are not well understood and are widely debated due to the lack of epidemiological evidence and different interpretations of existing studies (Hall & Solowij, 1998). It is for this reason in particular, that I do not believe that cannabis should be made legal in Canada. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has determined based on the limited evidence available, that marijuana is harmful to the developing brain and has suggested that more research must be conducted in this area (Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, 2014). However, research on the effects of cannabis on the health of individuals is difficult to conduct because it is hard to collect data from individuals who regularly consume cannabis while controlling for other factors due to ethical implications. The existing gaps in research would make the legalization of cannabis dangerous because of the unforeseen impacts on health that could potentially occur should drugs containing cannabis be made more widely available.

Much of the emerging research on the effects of acute and chronic cannabis use is focused on adolescents and the connection between marijuana usage and psychosis suffered in adulthood. A revolutionary study conducted in Sweden was one of the first to show a six-fold increase in the occurrence of schizophrenia in individuals who used cannabis heavily at age 18 (Andréasson, Allebeck, Engström & Rydberg, 1987). However, it must be said that the study is limited in the sense that its findings are only correlational and cannot be used to determine causality. The study was unable to draw a conclusion as to whether schizophrenia was caused by the use of cannabis, or whether pre-existing symptoms of schizophrenia led to the use of marijuana (Arseneault, Cannon, Poulton, Murray, Caspi & Moffitt, 2002). Further studies have been conducted examining this relationship. The exact neurobiological process that leads to potential psychosis is unknown because a cause-effect relationship has not yet been established, but current research is focusing on the identifying the factors that contribute to the developmental pathway of psychosis (Shrivastava, Johnston, Terpstra, Bureau, 2014).  A study conducted on college students found that heavy marijuana usage, defined as smoking marijuana 29 out of 30 of the previous days, resulted in impaired executive functioning even after controlling for confounding factors (Pope Jr & Yurgelun-Todd, 1996). This study was unable to determine whether impairment is due to a residue of drug in the brain, a withdrawal effect from the drug, or a neurotoxic effect of the drug. Another study reached the same conclusion as the Swedish study, adding that rates of schizophrenia increased after cannabis use even after controlling for psychotic symptoms preceding cannabis use, early use (by age 15) conferred greater risk than later use (by age 18), and risk was specific to cannabis use as opposed to other drugs (Arseneault, et al., 2002). A tenth of the individuals in this study who used cannabis before age 15 developed schizophrenia by the age of 26. The effects of cannabis on the developing brain are not fully known yet but current research suggests that some adolescents may be psychologically vulnerable and thus legalizing marijuana, thereby making it more widely available, could potentially have long-term detrimental effects on the mental health of these individuals.

Many proponents for the legalization of the drug have argued that the illegality of the substance has not prevented it from becoming one of the most widely used drugs in the developed world, and that the government should regulate the substance much in the same way it regulates alcohol or other medications. This claim is made with the belief that the regulation of cannabis would reduce the number of adolescents selling marijuana and their access to other illegal drugs, and would reduce the cost of prosecuting offences related to the use of cannabis. In response to suggestions that the legalization of cannabis would reduce costs to the judicial system, opponents of legalization have proposed decriminalizing marijuana and instead imposing civil penalties for possession including small fines (Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, 2014). The health of individuals should be the first and foremost priority of health and government officials and the substance should not be made legal simply to reduce the strain on the judicial system, or as a means to prevent the usage of other more harmful and addictive substances. Although many of the findings about the physical, and psychological health effects of cannabis usage are limited or are correlational instead of demonstrating causality, this should not serve as a basis to decriminalize cannabis. In Canada, any potential new drug must go through a rigorous screening process including clinical studies that are then reviewed by the Therapeutic Products Directorate of Health Canada and the findings are then assessed for the safety, efficacy, and quality of the drug (Health Canada, 2001). The potential benefits and adverse effects of cannabis have not been rigorously studied to the extent that other drugs have had to undergo when going through the drug review process (Sullivan, 2012). Health Canada states that its first and foremost concern is ensuring the safety and well-being of Canadians, and the current research and findings on long-term cannabis usage must be addressed before any discussion of legalization could take place (Health Canada, 2001). More scientific research is needed for this purpose. There are also a host of other concerns which would emerge if legalization were to happen including whether or not it would increase the number of individuals who become addicted to marijuana, whether accident rates would increase due to cannabis usage particularly in the teenage demographic, and what impacts on health this would have in the long-term.

Cannabis products for medicinal purposes are a widely debated topic in Canada. In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there must be reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana when authorized by a physician, which resulted in the creation of Health Canada’s Marijuana Medical Access Program (Health Canada, 2001). A report published in 1999 by the Institute of Medicine found that marijuana functioned to treat chronic pain and physical symptoms and produced anti-anxiety and sedative effects (Rubens, 2014). Medical marijuana has been shown to benefit patients suffering from chronic pain due to diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and hepatitis, relieves eye pressure caused by glaucoma, increases appetites in patients with AIDS and cancer, and relieves acute anxiety, insomnia and other sleep disorders (Friedman, 2013). The stance of the Government of Canada is that it does not condone the use of marijuana and it has announced that the Marijuana Medical Access Program will end on March 31, 2014 at which point the only legal access to marijuana for medical purposes will be through licensed producers even if you have an authorization to possess or a license to produce the drug (Health Canada, 2013). Many individuals argue that these new laws are unconstitutional because they interfere with the rights of patients to access medication. The Government of Canada has responded that these new laws must be put into place in order to protect public safety, while making sure patients still have access to what they need to treat serious illness (Health Canada, 2013). My belief is that based on current evidence medical marijuana has been shown to effectively treat many health issues and alleviate chronic pain. Medical marijuana should remain legal because of the strict regulations that are in place to prevent misuse and abuse of the system. Government regulations require that a physician prescribe medical marijuana and the new laws will limit the distribution of medical marijuana to licensed facilities only. I believe that the benefits to patients in this case supersede the potential consequences, as those who would qualify would already have chronic and debilitating health issues, and their quality of life would be dramatically improved through the use of medical marijuana. I believe the new restrictions concerning which facilities can distribute medical marijuana will ultimately be beneficial, as the facilities will be regulated by government legislation, and it will ensure that only those who have been prescribed medical marijuana are serviced at these facilities. The Special Committee on Illegal Drugs stated in its report that public policy concerns should not be considered by a physician when making a professional decision on the extent to which and in what circumstances marijuana serves a therapeutic purpose for the patient (Nolin & Kenny, 2002). The legal status of medical marijuana should be continually reviewed and reconsidered based on the most current and up to date evidence on the health impacts of marijuana. The therapeutic value of medical marijuana must always outweigh any potential health impacts for patients suffering from chronic health conditions. One line of research that should be conducted is on the psychological effects of cannabinoids which could lead to undesirable effects for certain patients and could negate any potential medical benefit from its usage (Joy, Watson, Benson, 1999).

In conclusion, my contention is that current research supports the continued illegality of cannabis in Canada. The legalization of cannabis should not occur because of public demand, or as a new source of revenue for the government of Canada, but should only be done on the basis of science. Currently, scientific research has shown many potential adverse effects from the use of cannabis and thus does not support the notion that legalization should take place. To allow legalization to occur at this point would go against the objectives of Health Canada and could potentially jeopardize the health of Canadians and lead to many other unforeseen outcomes. More research must be conducted in this area in order for researchers and policy makers to make an informed decision about whether the legalization of cannabis should take place. Some researchers predict that rates of marijuana usage could double or triple if legalization were to occur, thus it is important to understand what implications this will have on the health of individuals and society as a whole before legalization can occur (Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Weekly, 2014). The lack of scientific consensus on the health impacts of cannabis usage and studies showing correlations of cannabis usage and adverse outcomes have led me to draw the conclusion that cannabis should not be legalized at this time. However, I do believe that an exception for medical marijuana should be made as it has been shown to alleviate chronic pain and benefit patients with certain medical conditions. Unless more research is conducted which shows adverse effects to human health that outweigh the benefits to patients who use medical marijuana to treat their symptoms, the removal of medical marijuana would serve to do more harm than good and would infringe on their constitutional right to life, liberty and security of person. There should be controlled access in this case, regulated by the Government of Canada which bears the responsibility of creating and upholding regulations for medical marijuana production and distribution to ensure access to medical marijuana, while continuing to ensure the safety of the Canadian population as a whole.  It is important to note that my position is based off of current scientific literature, which has not yet drawn conclusions as to the long-term health impacts of cannabis usage and the impacts it will have on society in other aspects. The interest and controversy in the debate on the legal status of cannabis products has not diminished and the next few years may prove critical for reaching both scientific and political consensus on the health impacts of cannabis and what the legal status should be respectively.  In 2013, Uruguay became the first nation to legalize the growing, sale, and smoking of marijuana (Castaldi & Llambias, 2013). There are also other nations and cities known for openly selling marijuana to locals and tourists, including Jamaica and certain “coffee shops” in the Netherlands. In my opinion a lack of aversive consequences in these countries does not help to strengthen the argument that cannabis should be legalized in Canada, as the findings are non-generalizable because of the vast difference in culture, history, society, and other confounding factors. Colorado and Washington are now in the process of legalizing marijuana and are serving as experimental labs for the rest of the United States (Rocky Mountain HIDTA, 2014). The impact of legalization will be heavily studied in the upcoming months and potentially years. This may serve as an unprecedented opportunity for scientists to study the usage of marijuana and cannabis products in cities that more closely resemble Canadian cities and may prove to be key in ascertaining the scientific data needed to make a more informed decision on whether cannabis should continue to remain illegal in the future, or whether we should proceed with decriminalization or legalization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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