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Cannabis legalization forum held at the Yellow Door. (Jesse Stein / McGill Tribune)

Student group tackles misconceptions surrounding marijuana legalization

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On Jan. 27, students discussed cannabis legalization at an open forum held at the Yellow Door, led by the McGill chapter of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). Their goal as an organization, according to their website, is to discuss the negative impacts of drug policies on individuals and communities. 

The forum began with a video showing an interview with two professors from McGill University, Dr. Mark Ware, a director of clinical research at McGill University Health Centre and Dr. Ken Lester, a professor of Finance in the Desautels Faculty of Management. Ware started the video by disproving the widely held assumption that the effects of cannabis are worse than tobacco.

“I don’t think there is a single metric that you can use that can prove that that statement is true,” Ware said. “It’s clearly not infintely worse than tobacco. In fact, in many ways, cannabis is far safer than tobacco.”

Every year, millions of people die from over consumption of tobacco and other drugs, but the statistics for cannabis use are not as high. Ware discussed the the effects of decriminalizing recreational cannabis use evidenced in the states of Washington and Colarado. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a huge spike in traffic accidents, a huge spike in fatalities, [or] a huge spike in school dropouts [in those states,]” Ware explained. 

Lester went on to explore the benefits of legalization for the government. 

“Right now, the market is paying a huge premium because it is illegal,” Lester said. “What would it actually cost [the market] if it was not illegal? Probably 10 per cent of what the market is paying for now. Theoretically, if that market price is doable […] then that 90 per cent could be taxes.”

Despite government laws that restrict or ban certain substances, there is relatively easy access to them through the black market.

“If you want [cannabis], you can find it now—so I don’t think there are people looking for it that that can’t get it,” Lester said.  “I don’t think that legalizing it will all the sudden increase the usage among [teenagers.] ”

The main speaker of the evening, Gonzo Nieto, co-chair of CSSDP, spoke about the potential risks of addiction to cannabis, especially when it comes to teenagers and young adolescents who are the biggest users of the drug.

“We speak about ‘addictive’ as a quality of certain drugs, yet we have people addicted to gambling and no one is arguing that a pack of cards is addictive,” Nieto said. “People are addicted to work, and we don’t debate whether a given workplace is addictive. Sure, there are drugs that people are more likely to [become addicted] to, but what we need to look at is why some people have a greater tendency to become addicted.”

Nieto explained that the drug itself doesn’t cause addictive behaviour. There are many perscription drugs that patients can become dependent on, yet are still legal to perscribe.  

 “There is a lot of over-prescription of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication which can also become an addiction […] and in many cases, people aren’t aware that what they are under the effect of is a form of substance dependence,” Nieto said.

According to Ware, the decriminalization of cannabis would take the focus away from the legal justice system and instead focus on harm reduction and helping those that are in need of support and aid. 

“Having an approach where you treat people who have substance abuse disorders as a medical problem [and] not as a legal one allows us to help those people [get] treatment, to find access to something that’s clean that allows them to avoid the harm,” Ware said. “The harms often with these drugs are not so much the drug itself, but the illicit nature of the drug that goes with it.”

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