This week I was part of a panel discussion hosted by MLA for Calgary Mountainview Dr. David Swann, who brought together experts with diverse perspectives from Indigenous health and wellness, public health, law, policing and the City of Calgary, to discuss the risks and benefits of legalization. What I found resonated most with attendees was drawing from the public health evidence to talk about what we know about the prevalence of use and the risks of harm. Surprisingly to me, some people thought that prevalence of lifetime reported use* was already at 80-90%. In fact, what we know is that this is about 43% nationally and 48% for Alberta based on the most recent data from our major general population survey of substance use, Health Canada’s CTADS. In more recent past-year prevalence data from the CCS, which was designed to over-sample cannabis users** we see that reported use in the past 12 months was at 22% for those age 16+. So yes, cannabis is the most frequently used (currently) illicit drug, but based on these representative surveys of Canadians, we can still say that there are more people who are not using it than those who are. In short, nothing to panic about here!
You can watch the Facebook live recordings of the event here (I am the last speaker on the panel):
What we do know is that cannabis may exacerbate symptoms in people who are vulnerable to, or who are already experiencing mental illness. Frequent use and use of more potent products may pose greater risks.
Finally, I can’t help but think that the panic about cannabis’ potential association with psychosis is less based on evidence, but more so tied to how we actively stigmatize mental illness and blame people for behaviours that are the “causes” of their illness.
On February 6th the University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy hosted a cannabis townhall event, where a panel of speakers addressed the university community on the evidence and policy issues surrounding cannabis legalization. The event was moderated by Kathy Le from CTV Calgary, and coincidentally Cathy did a very good series in 2015, reporting on Calgary mother Sarah Wilkinson’s struggles to access medical cannabis for her daughter Mia, who has severe epilepsy. Sarah was one of the patient advocates who spoke at our O’Brien Forum on Cannabis and Public Health in May 2017.
Photo Credit: Justin Schellenberg (UC Gauntlet)
It was great to see such a strong turn out for this event and the high level of engagement from the campus community and members of the general public. I only wish we had more time to field audience questions, which is always the case! I was also struck by the fact that every time I do a public event like this I meet people from many different walks of life who want to tell me about their experiences – mainly positive, but also negative – with using cannabis. I am really curious to see how this conversation will broaden and shift among Canadians post-legalization. As I mentioned in my talk, I think we are going to see many more people admitting to using and also speaking out about the social stigma of having charges for cannabis possession.
Although no one really enjoys listening to themselves give a talk (especially when you have the voice of a 12-year-old, as I do), I was happy with the way this one turned out. You can hear the audio from my presentation, “Understanding the public health rationale for legalization in Canada,” as well as all of the other panelists, over on SoundCloud (thanks to Trevor Howell for capturing these recordings). You will also want to check out talks from my UCalgary colleagues Fiona Clement and Matt Hill.
Last year I became involved with a project from the Canadian Public Health Association on, “A Public Health Approach to Cannabis (and Other Substances): Prevention, Health Promotion, Surveillance, and Capacity Building”. With funding from Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program, the focus of this work is to support a public health approach to cannabis and to engage with health, public health and social service communities to enhance their knowledge of, and capacity to address issues related to cannabis and other substance use. In addition to hosting knowledge mobilization activities in communities across the country and carrying out a survey of health and social service providers’ information needs about cannabis, the CPHA is hosting a webinar series on cannabis and public health. The goal of these webinars is to ensure that public health, health and social service providers in Canada are prepared to respond to the needs of people who use cannabis and to provide unbiased and non-judgmental support and advice.
The next webinar is on March 8, “Legalizing cannabis – Clearing the Smoke” from Dr. Elaine Hyshka from the University of Alberta. You can register here.