Hon. Betty Unger: Honourable senators, the Liberal government’s plan to legalize marijuana will make Canada the first developed country in the world to do so. This fact alone should give us pause.

So what is it with this plant — this weed — that makes it a pariah in all other democratic countries and the reason Canada should not, absolutely not, be contemplating legalization?

Why is it that these Canadian institutions that were mentioned: the Canadian Medical Association, Psychiatric Association, Paediatric Society and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, have all been voicing their concerns about the negative impacts of cannabis?

Question: To whom is this Trudeau government listening and/or taking advice from?

Let’s consider some facts. The main psychoactive chemical that today’s users seek and the chemical that is responsible for most of the intoxicating effects is commonly known as THC, or Delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol.

Upon consumption of marijuana, THC enters the lungs, is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and gets carried to the brain, where it begins to interfere with normal brain activity.

The chemical structure of THC is remarkably similar to a naturally occurring brain chemical called anandamide which functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain, sending chemical messages between nerve cells and throughout the nervous system. This similarity allows THC to mimic the role of anandamide which then allows the THC to alter normal brain communications and to be recognized by the body. [1]

But THC is much stronger than anandamide and can have profoundly negative effects such as impaired thinking, interference with the ability to learn and perform complicated tasks and also disrupting functioning of brain areas that regulate balance, coordination and reaction time, to name but a few.

Simply put: If someone attempts to rewire the electrical system of your car by altering a system that is complex, delicate and carefully designed, you would be alarmed and probably outraged because you would know that your car will never again run properly. This scenario is the developing brain on marijuana.

Effects of THC are felt almost immediately, with feelings of euphoria and relaxation, but the pleasant feelings are by no means universal. Others may experience feelings of anxiety, panic, paranoia or fear, potentially caused by unexpected THC concentrations, excessive consumption or if the user is inexperienced.

An acute psychosis with delusions and hallucinations is possible with large THC doses, but these temporary reactions are distinct from the permanent damage — most importantly, to the brain — from persistent marijuana usage. Study after study has demonstrated that THC impairs the wiring of a young person’s brain in an irreversible manner.

Regular marijuana use by children and by youth — those under the age of 25 — permanently alters their brain size, structure and function, and brain fibre connectivity is diminished. [2]

Regular usage by children and youth under the age of 25 has been linked to poor school performance, increased school dropout rates, a significant decrease in IQ that does not recover with cessation, increased risk for psychotic disorders, a decrease in initiative later in life, resulting in diminished lifetime achievements, and the gateway effect of marijuana has been well documented. [3] [4] [5]

But in addition to being stronger than anandamide, THC remains in the body’s fatty tissues for much longer. This is because THC is fat soluble. [6] After being rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, THC can attach to — and be stored in — fatty deposits in the body, impacting brain functioning for potentially untold periods of time.

But the harm doesn’t end there. THC which has been sequestered in body fat can be released back into the bloodstream of the user possibly by exercise, fasting or trauma. Upon re-entry into the bloodstream, the THC again travels to the brain and can produce a second high which, although less intensive, has the same negative impacts. [7]

The implications of this are numerous. A couple of examples: Researchers tell us it is possible that THC concentrations re-released into the blood could reach sufficient levels to cause cannabinoid-related cognitive deficits. For example, having smoked a joint a week ago, a near-miss car accident could release THC back into the person’s bloodstream, causing possible impairment.

Heavy marijuana users have been known to give positive urine samples after 77 days of drug abstinence. This introduces significant complications when doing drug testing for employment or impairment.

But marijuana doesn’t just harm children and young adults. Marijuana exposure during pregnancy results in lower birth weights, an increased risk of behavioural problems and neurocognitive challenges regarding short-term memory.

Anandamide is responsible for the development of the fetal brain and marijuana consumption — even in low concentrations — during pregnancy interferes with this process. [8]

Additionally, in 2009, the Journal of Toxicology reported:

Due to the intake of cannabis . . . by mothers, infant children depending on breast-feeding might exhibit physiological effects such as sedation, reduced muscle tone and other adverse effects. [9]

Furthermore, while marijuana reportedly helps minimize nausea, heavy use can lead to episodes of violent retching and abdominal pain, a condition known as Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome or CHS. At one time this condition was considered to be quite rare, but a study published last month in the journal Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology found that amongst frequent marijuana users over one third presented CHS symptoms. [10]

Colleagues, time doesn’t allow me to attempt to detail more of the many negative health impacts that are caused by marijuana usage, but these impacts are real, and they are many. The question is, what can be done?

The primary way to reduce the harm caused by marijuana or any illegal drug is to reduce usage. Legalization will do the opposite. Rather than reducing consumption, legalization will cause it to increase. Legalization creates normalization of a dangerous, life-altering drug, which reduces the perception of risk.

Researchers have observed for decades that “when anti-drug attitudes soften there is a corresponding increase in drug use in the coming years.” That is from the United States Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Agency. [11]

The DEA goes on to say:

An adolescent’s perception of the risks associated with substance use is an important determinant of whether he or she engages in substance use . . . . youths who perceive high risk of harm are less likely to use drugs than youths who perceive low risk of harm.

The historical record clearly illustrates this fact.

If you look at the historical usage of marijuana by youth, you will find that, over the last 50 years, the rate of use has followed a nearly identical trend line in both the U.S. and in Canada. In the early 1970s, usage began to increase rapidly until 1978, when it peaked at about 35 per cent in Canada and 37 per cent in the U.S.

But then usage began to drop — steadily and rapidly — for the next 13 years, until it reached a low of almost 12 per cent in 1992. This downward trend stopped in 1993, when youth usage began to rise again quite quickly, and by 2015, settled in at roughly 22 per cent in the U.S. and 24 per cent in Canada. That’s according to Statistics Canada. [12]

The question is, why did it change?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine studied this in 2012 and found that over the last 40 years youth usage has moved in concert with the perceived risk of harm. [13] When perception of harm goes down, usage goes up; when perception of harm goes up, usage goes down. When plotted on a graph, the lines move in almost perfect symmetry. [14] You will see these graphs. They’re being emailed to everyone.

So what caused the plunge in usage through the 1980s and early 1990s? Researchers have noted that the decline coincided with the rise of “The Parents’ Movement” in the United States. This movement has been credited with changing public attitude towards marijuana, resulting in a change of government policy under President Reagan.

Concerned parents worked hard to educate their kids and the government about the harms of pot usage. Marijuana became de-normalized and the perception of risk increased. What became known as “The Parents’ Movement” lasted from 1978 to roughly 1992. This time frame coincides with the largest drop in youth usage of marijuana in history, as youth were provided information about the harms and risks of usage.

To date, the U.S. federal government has not legalized marijuana, and in the States which have legalized, the minimum age for use is 21.

So changes are needed. Canada of late has become very concerned about “concussions,” with many strict protocols being implemented by sports organizations around the globe dealing with this serious issue. But most concussions heal with time without life being altered. Yet, in this place, we senators appear to be ready to appease the Trudeau government and agree with legalizing this noxious weed which is known to cause permanent, irreversible damage to our most vulnerable groups, our children and our young adults.

Why would we say “yes,” when the horrible, irreversible consequences are proven by MRI and brain scans and autopsies?

Senator Galvez, in her recent speech, had many questions for the government. Each senator in this place should have many questions. Senators, I remind you that we are in this place representing 30 million Canadians.

We should, each of us, have 50 questions for this government, and we should demand answers from this government. And we, the select few with sober second thought, should not consider saying “yes” to this odious legislation until we, on behalf of all Canadians, have all the answers. I believe that, at a minimum, an intensive four-year education blitz should begin now before any government contemplates legislation. As our American neighbours have shown, when people of all ages have all the facts, they “just say no.”


[1] Marijuana. National Institute on Drug Abuse. December 2017.  https://d14rmgtrwzf5a.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/1380-marijuana.pdf
[2] Andrew Zalesky, Nadia Solowij, Murat Yücel, Dan I. Lubman, Michael Takagi, Ian H. Harding, Valentina Lorenzetti, Ruopeng Wang, Karissa Searle, Christos Pantelis, Marc Seal; Effect of long-term cannabis use on axonal fibre connectivity, Brain, Volume 135, Issue 7, 1 July 2012, Pages 2245–2255, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/aws136
[3] Meier et al. 2012; D’Sousa, et al. 2016; McHugh, et al. 2017. as reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/sites/default/files/emk-slides-samhsa-prevention-day-02-05-17.pdf
[4] Jones CM Analysis of 2015-2016 NSDUH Public Use File Data as reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/sites/default/files/emk-slides-samhsa-prevention-day-02-05-17.pdf
[5] Cannabis and Canada’s children and youth. Canadian Pediatric Society.  May 2017. https://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/cannabis-children-and-youth
[6] Nahas, G. G. (2001), The pharmacokinetics of THC in fat and brain: resulting functional responses to marihuana smoking. Hum. Psychopharmacol. Clin. Exp., 16: 247–255.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12404577
[7] Wong, Alexander & E Montebello, Mark & Norberg, Melissa & Rooney, Kieron & Lintzeris, Nicholas & Bruno, Raimondo & Booth, Jessica & Arnold, Jonathon & Mcgregor, Iain. (2013). Exercise increases plasma THC concentrations in regular cannabis users. Drug and alcohol dependence.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256480394_Exercise_increases_plasma_THC_concentrations_in_regular_cannabis_users 
[8] Clearing the Smoke on Cannabis: Maternal Cannabis Use during Pregnancy. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2015. http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/CCSA-Cannabis-Maternal-Use-Pregnancy-Report-2015-en.pdf
[9] Sharma P, Murthy P, Bharath MMS. Chemistry, Metabolism, and Toxicology of Cannabis: Clinical Implications. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry. 2012;7(4):149-156.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3570572/
[10] Habboushe J, Rubin A, Liu H, Hoffman RS. The prevalence of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome among regular marijuana smokers in an urban public hospital. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2018; doi: 10.1111/bcpt.12962]. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bcpt.12962/abstract
[11] The DEA Position on Marijuana. Aril 2013. https://www.dea.gov/docs/marijuana_position_2011.pdf
[12] Experimental Estimates of Cannabis Consumption in Canada, 1960 to 2015. Statistics Canada. December 2017. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-626-x/11-626-x2017077-eng.htm
[13] American Society of Addiction Medicine. July 2012. https://www.asam.org/docs/publicy-policy-statements/state-level-proposals-to-legalize-marijuana-final2773DD668C2D.pdf
[14] Volkow, Nora D.; Baler, Ruben D.; Compton, Wilson M.; Weiss, Susan R.B.. Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use. 2014. New England Journal of Medicine. P 2219-2227. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4827335/pdf/nihms762992.pdf