Marijuana is Dangerous, Now and in the Future
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 12, 2005

RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli retracted his statement that the Mayerthorpe tragedy was about marijuana but the sad reality is he may have been right the first time.

Caution is necessary before interpreting behaviours described in the media, but reports about James Roszko, 46, suggest pathologies consistent with psychosis – a condition which scientific studies increasingly connect to early use of marijuana.

Speaking with the CBC in Calgary, family members said Roszko started using drugs early in life. His parents divorced when he was twelve and soon after he became involved in petty crime, assault and possibly pedophilia, too. This resulted in some prison time, numerous subsequent brushes with the law and, ultimately, the death of four RCMP officers.

Last week’s headlines complete the picture of a man grown increasingly manipulative, paranoid, violent and finally disconnected from reality – the major symptom of psychosis. “He was a dangerous person”, said the National Post; “Family split over killer’s true nature”, said the Ottawa Citizen; and, from the Globe and Mail, “Roszko would stalk, harass people …”

Studies from Sweden and New Zealand indicate that young users of cannabis are at risk for becoming psychotic or schizophrenic later in life. The first of two New Zealand studies, one published in 2003 and the second published this month, involved 1037 individuals with a 96 per cent follow up rate. Starting with information gathered on psychotic symptoms from the age of 11, it tracked drug use by ages 15 and 18, then the psychiatric outcomes by age 26.

Building on the findings of the Swedish study that “heavy cannabis use at age 18 increased the risk of later schizophrenia six fold”, this study further concluded that cannabis does its damage without a pre-existing psychosis. It also determined that use by age 15 confers greater risk than use by age 18 and that “risk (is) specific to cannabis use, as opposed to use of other drugs.” In this study, “a tenth of users by age 15 developed schizophreniform disorder by age 26 compared with three per cent of the remaining cohort.”

We may never know why James Roszko became the person he did but for parents of vulnerable adolescents and for those who must legislate and enforce laws on the production and consumption of marijuana, this New Zealand study has clear implications.

First, it disproves assertions that marijuana is harmless, or at least no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco - and that’s before considering potency, which has skyrocketed from the giddy low potency highs experienced by happy Sixties hippies.

It also reveals how legalizing marijuana - the much ballyhooed solution to putting the organized crime rings running Canada’s multi-billion dollar marijuana industry out of business - would require a massive regulatory and enforcement framework, the first to control production and consumption and the second to apprehend the estimated 90 per cent of production that is now (and would continue to be) smuggled into the U.S.

Aside from the overwhelming logistics legalizing marijuana would entail, other impacts would be considerable as well. “Anything that makes it more available for adults will increase its physical availability to adolescents,” Dr. Herbert Kleber, a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Addiction Psychiatry, said when the Canadian Senate’s Special Committee on Illegal Drugs advised legalizing marijuana. “Anything that makes it more available for adults legally is going to decrease its cost and make it more available economically. And anything that changes its legal status is going to make it more psychologically available.”

Worst of all possible worlds is the government’s proposed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts.

In 2004, 70 per cent of Canadian men aged 18 to 24 reported using marijuana. Lacking regulatory oversight or negative consequences to deter or stigmatize its use, decriminalization risks turning young users into a psychological underclass whose principle enabler is a law already in disrepute because of the inherent contradiction of allowing consumption while disallowing production.

Standing in front of her home in Red Deer, Alta., the mother of slain RCMP Officer Brock Myrol, Colleen Myrol said: “The man who murdered our son and brother was a person who was deeply disturbed and ill. It is our duty as Canadians to stop and rethink how we are raising our children …

“It is time to take our liberal-minded attitude to task.”

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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