Apart from the #Metoo maelstrom and the housing crises in Toronto and Vancouver, few things stir up Canadians more than marijuana, which its promoters claim is the cure for everything from glaucoma to brain disease.
Should private outlets sell recreational marijuana? Is it more enjoyable to smoke or swallow cannabis? Will I get rich on pot stocks? Is it possible to remove the criminal underground from Canada’s $6 billion-a-year cannabis industry?
With the federal Liberals preparing to legalize recreational marijuana across Canada — which has among the highest usage rates in the world — the B.C. government this month announced plans to regulate and sell it, opting for one ounce at a time to those age 19 and above. Informal polling suggests a slim majority approve.
Meanwhile, the social libertarians argue that virtually any attempt to restrict cannabis is a victory for nanny-state prudishness. Others act as if cannabis is like “Soma,” the all-healing drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Opponents, meanwhile, counter that legalization could turn cannabis into even more of a scourge, especially for young brains.
The latest group to add their voice to the messy debate over legalization is Canada’s psychologists, the clinician-scientists who therapeutically face troubled clients, but also research the effects of drugs, from alcohol to anti-depressants, on the human mind, body and spirit.
For those who regularly use cannabis, the word is largely discouraging from Psynopsis, the official magazine of the Canadian Psychological Association, which represents about 7,000 psychologists.
The entire recent edition of Psynopsis is devoted to cannabis legalization in Canada, a country in which about one in three young people are users. Every article in the magazine, but one, errs on the side of extreme wariness.
The conclusions of the Canadian Psychological Association’s task force on the legalization of cannabis verge on devastating.
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The task force says regular cannabis use among teens “is related to poorer education outcomes, lower incomes, suicidality, greater welfare dependence and unemployment” and, among the population at large, increased risk of motor vehicle collisions.
The Canadian Psychological Association’s task force also says “cannabis use can disrupt normal adolescent brain development,” affecting verbal learning, memory and attention. “Some of these effects continue even after cannabis use is discontinued.”
Cannabis Cellar sign, once on Broadway, raises high expectations about the healing effects of marijuana. No mention of studies on lower IQ scores, lethargy, psychosis etc.
Worse yet, the task force maintains “cannabis use is linked with an earlier age of onset for psychosis, and the risk of psychosis onset is greater at higher levels of cannabis use.”
A lead member of the task force, Ontario psychologist David Teplin, laments how legalizing cannabis has the “potential to further decrease perceptions of harm,” by normalizing usage.
Teplin acknowledged that “the public health burden of cannabis use is evidently less than that of alcohol, tobacco or other illicit drugs,” which was his nod to recognizing how beer, wine and spirits have become integral to European and North American society — for good, and often in excess, for ill.
However, Teplin’s lead article was mostly devoted to reviewing the “compelling evidence” that cannabis is associated with a wide range of harms, including cognitive impairments, increased dependence, poorer pregnancy outcomes and pulmonary problems.
Another Psynopsis article, by psychology professor Andrea Smith of the University of Ottawa, says marijuana harms young brains while they’re “under construction. … Far too many teens that use cannabis regularly become apathetic and perform poorly.”
The University of Montreal’s Josiane Bourque, a biomedical scientist, indirectly suggested in a separate piece that advocates shouldn’t mock earlier claims about “reefer madness,” which linked marijuana with mental illness. “Studies from the last three decades,” she said, “have provided substantial evidence of a two- to three-fold increased risk of a first episode of psychosis in cannabis users.”
As a counterpoint, the official magazine of Canada’s psychologists offers one semi-positive piece about marijuana legalization. It comes from a University of B.C. team — psychology professor Zach Walsh, masters’ student Michelle Thiessen and PhD student Kim Crosby.
The UBC scholars maintains preliminary research suggests “cannabis may be effective for reducing problematic use of alcohol and other drugs,” including prescription medications. The UBC group looks forward to this summer when “Canadians will have the privilege to decide for themselves the role that cannabis will play among the range of approved options for altering mood and cognition.”
It is relatively hard to find scientific research that defends marijuana use. But a North American-wide group led by UBC’s Walsh, which included Thiessen and Crosby, was responsible for one of the more significant projects to that end.
Their reviews of 60 studies maintains that marijuana “may have the potential” for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, does not appear to lead to abuse of self or others and might not have long-lasting effects on mental functions. Walsh and colleagues lament how marijuana research is still in its infancy.
As is usual when researchers submit to medical publications, however, the UBC authors were asked to declare if they had any “conflicts of interest.” Walsh, Thiessen and Crosby acknowledged they receive funding from Tilray Canada, a B.C.-based medical marijuana producer, which last month signed a supply agreement with Shoppers Drug Mart.
Another study of marijuana with mixed messages comes from a University of California psychologist, Nicholas Jackson. He found declining intelligence scores among teenage marijuana users might be more attributable to their difficult family situations and general delinquency. The University of London’s Claire Mokrysz and colleagues also found cigarette smoking was just as responsible as marijuana for teenagers’ poor educational outcomes.
With such scientific results coming in all over the place, it should be clear that when psychologists, on all sides of the debate, say there is an urgent need for more research into the positive, negative and neutral effects of cannabis, they’re not kidding.
Even if some are eager for grants to further their careers, they’re justified in pointing to the need for more difficult-to-obtain evidence on cannabis because Canada, like many Western countries, is heading into uncharted mental-health territory by legalizing pot for medical and recreational use.
With that purpose in mind, the Canadian Psychological Association’s task force recommends that — along with launching major public awareness campaigns about harms linked to cannabis — more research must be conducted into how it affects memory, suicidal thinking, mental disorders, motor vehicle safety, depression and anxiety.
As with most debates, the ideologues in the battle over legalization run the danger of unnecessarily polarizing us into caricature cheerleaders or fearmongers. They stifle reasonable discussion. Canada won’t be able to figure out how to move ahead on legalization without more thorough data.
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