CMA president Dr. Granger Avery said Canadians must be informed that smoking marijuana is not a ‘benign activity.’

The Hill Times | May 8, 2017

Before legalizing marijuana, the Trudeau government needs to launch an aggressive public education campaign to combat popular mistruths and make significant investments to improve the admittedly sparse slate of existing research, physicians say.

Dr. Granger Avery, president of the Canadian Medical Association, which represents domestic doctors, said persisting misinformation about the risks of smoking pot means Ottawa must roll out a comprehensive public health education campaign to coincide with its plans to legalize and regulate the substance.

“I think it’s viewed really as a benign activity to smoke marijuana-it’s not,” he said.

“That message really needs to be promulgated clearly to Canadians.”

Dr. Avery said doctors believe three groups are at the greatest risk when it comes to using pot: young people, pregnant women, and those with psychiatric and psychological illnesses.

The effects of long-term pot use on young people, specifically in regards to brain development, remain unknown, he said, while it has been shown that cannabis “makes a lot of psychological illnesses, psychiatric illnesses worse,” including precipitating psychosis.

The public health campaign led by Ottawa must inform Canadians, particularly those that fall into those three groups, about the risks, he explained.

But because this constellation of drugs hasn’t been studied adequately, Dr. Avery said more research is desperately needed, especially in terms of how marijuana interacts with other prescription medications.

“All of those pieces of research need to be done, done as quickly as possible if we are to regulate this in a way that makes sense to Canadians,” he explained.

“They are over 400 different psychoactive drugs in marijuana, so this is a huge amount that we don’t know, we don’t understand its reactions with other psychoactive drugs prescribed by doctors, for example.”

While some pharmaceutical research is funded by the drug companies themselves, Dr. Avery said he doesn’t anticipate any private sector dollars for pot research, meaning it’ll be almost exclusively up to governments to cover the costs.

Last month, the Trudeau government introduced its heavily hyped legislative framework for the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. It allows adults 18 and over to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana in public and buy cannabis or cannabis oil from a regulated retailer.

It also introduces tough penalties for people convicted of selling drugs to minors and impaired drivers.

The Liberal government has promised to launch a corresponding public health campaign to inform Canadians about the risks of marijuana use.

In terms of resources, budget 2017 earmarked $9.6 million over five years to Health Canada to “support marijuana public education programming and surveillance activities.”

Health Minister Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) told The Hill Times that Health Canada would be working closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada and other partners across the country to ensure education efforts “improve people’s understanding of the potential risks” of marijuana use.

“Canadians are among the highest users of cannabis in the world, particularly Canadian youth, and so it’s of the utmost importance that we make sure that they’re well educated, and we’re firmly committed to doing that,” she explained.

“We have said that our approach to the legalization and regulation of access to cannabis will have a public health focus and that the simplest way to capture what it means on a public health focus is you need to maximize education and minimize harm.”

“And those are very much what we intend to do and have already started to do.”

When asked if she agrees that Canadians are largely unaware of the risks of pot, Ms. Philpott, a doctor by training, only said that there’s “always more to do” when it comes to raising awareness about the risks associated with any sort of substance use.

She also pointed to educational efforts about tobacco use as a blueprint for similar health campaigns planned for marijuana.

“We will be using many of those same lessons as we use a similar type of public education campaign to make sure Canadians understand the realities and that they make wise decisions,” she said.

Ms. Philpott largely attributed the sparse research on cannabis to its status as an illegal substance, but said the Liberals are “committed” to ensuring more research is produced, much of which will stem from its work with the government-funded Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

– The Hill Times