Following a history of prohibition and criminalization since 1923, the legalization of marijuana will soon be brought to a vote in Canada. The Liberal government will be announcing their new legislation in the spring of 2017, in line with their current platform.
A nine-member task force of experts was formed to advise the Canadian government on how to best move forward with its plan to legalize marijuana. The Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation has engaged with the public, government officials, indigenous peoples, youth, and health experts across Canada. Dr. Mark Ware, a cannabinoid researcher and a professor of Family Medicine at McGill, is the vice-chair of the task force. According to Ware, the discussion is not whether Canada should legalize marijuana, but how to best legalize it.
“We haven’t made any recommendations,” Dr. Ware said. “We are still deliberating on the input that we’ve received.”
Dr. Caleb Abaka Bouhairie, a McGill Medicine alumni and a Montreal physician, believes that marijuana may hold promise for patients suffering from a variety of diseases.
“From a medicinal perspective, there is a growing body of literature that describes both their harmful and their potentially beneficial effects [in treatments for] epilepsy, certain chronic pain disorders, anorexia, cachexia, glaucoma, and refractory nausea,” Dr. Bouhairie wrote in an email to The Tribune.
Kapil Sareen-Khanna, U3 Medicine, says that the medical community has yet to see a trend of long-term damage from marijuana use.
“[Decades after the onset of widespread cigarette use, we’ve seen] women’s lung cancer and heart disease rates still just hitting the plateau and trying to curve downwards [whereas] men’s have started to curve down earlier,” Sareen-Khanna said. “But with weed, we haven’t seen any huge associations [in trends].”
According to Sareen-Khanna, the arguments against the legalization of marijuana are similar to those that can be made against other legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco: Increased potential for substance abuse, adverse side-effects, and the risk of addiction. However, marijuana has medicinal properties and has significantly less acute, chronic, and [physiological] effects in comparison to alcohol and tobacco.
“The active compounds [in marijuana] are called cannabinoids,” Sareen-Khanna said. “Cannabinoids act on cannabinoid receptors and we have them in our gut and […] in our brain. In the gut […], but also in the immune system of the gut, and in the brain it’s in areas that control nausea, vomiting, pain, etcetera. [They’ve] already started to study and treat chronic pain [….] Officially, it’s not really approved for anything, medical marijuana.”
Dr. Mary-Ann Fitzcharles, a rheumatologist and pain researcher at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, and a professor of medicine at McGill, commented on the uncertainties that surround marijuana.
“This is a lot of basic scientific knowledge about the cannabinoid system,” Dr. Fitzcharles said. “However, it is a leap of faith to jump from [our understanding of] that system to the use of marijuana in the patient population.”
Dr. Fitzcharles explained that despite the growing body of scientific literature, there is still not enough clinical evidence that supports the claim used by proponents of legalization that marijuana-based medicines are effective and useful for large populations of people.
“The medical world has not yet done its due diligence to provide the evidence for the safety of using marijuana in many conditions, particularly in the rheumatic diseases,” Dr. Fitzcharles said. “We have no knowledge of what marijuana combined with other drugs would do, let alone what marijuana does on its own.”
According to Dr. Fitzcharles, the prohibition of marijuana has presented a challenge to necessary scientific research. She believes that without such clinical evidence, researchers cannot expect to be adequately educated about the effects of marijuana.
“It’s been extremely difficult,” Dr. Fitzcharles said. “There is no question that with all the legalities and illegalities of marijuana, the clinical researchers have had great difficulties with moving ahead with research. As physicians who base our management on evidence, we have to advocate for the good and proper research”
Andrew DiNunzio, U4 Science, feels that marijuana is already widely accessible for recreational users in Montreal.
“Every Sunday, if you go to Tam-Tams [in Mount Royal Park], you can smell the weed, and the cops are right there,” DiNunzio said. “People smoke there all the time. I don’t think things will be much different under the new law.”
McGill Director of Internal Communications, Doug Sweet, stated that it is too early to speculate on how the legalization of marijuana will affect the university campus. In connection with the movement towards a smoke-free campus, Sweet said that all forms of smoking will be covered by the university’s smoking policy.
“We presume that whatever smoking policy will be in effect at McGill at the time will apply,” Sweet said.
According to Dr. Fitzcharles, with Spring 2017 fast approaching, the public needs to be mindful that with the advent of the new marijuana legislation comes a wave of new concerns.
“The public generally believes that marijuana is safe and is not addictive […] most importantly, that you are safe to drive,” Dr. Fitzcharles said. “We must acknowledge that marijuana is not a panacea. It’s not an agent without any negative consequences.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sareen-Khanna said that marijuana has only medicinal properties while alcohol and tobacco do not. In fact, he specified that alcohol and tobacco have greater acute, chronic, and physiological effects than marijuana. In addition, a previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Sareen-Khanna as saying cannaboids work in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety. In fact, Sareen-Khanna said cannaboids work in the cannaboid receptors in the gut and the brain.