It’s Time for Marijuana Crackdown
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 27, 2006

Not a minute too soon, Mayor Bob Chiarelli is providing a much needed wake up call about the problem of marijuana use in high schools. Forty to sixty per cent of Ottawa students may be using the drug during the school day, he says.

From parents to policy and opinion makers, research in this area is routinely ignored but believing cannabis is harmless is no longer acceptable. A study co-produced in September by two British Columbia universities documents rising cannabis use among adolescents while another from Australia confirms an association between adolescent cannabis use and early adulthood psychosis. Considered together (both papers are available online), they, like Chiarelli, set alarm bells ringing.

The cover story of the August edition of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. “Cannabis and Psychosis” reviews six longitudinal studies involving cohorts aged 15-24 years from five countries and studies that controlled for factors such as other drug use and personal characteristics. It concludes that if a drug for pharmaceutical use presented similar adverse effects, it would be withdrawn from the market or prescribed with clear warnings.

Though a relationship between cannabis and psychosis in vulnerable adolescents has been hypothesized (and, along with predisposing genetic factors, discussed in this column) this study is the first to argue the biological plausibility of causality. Its bottom line finding? The earlier the consumption of larger quantities of cannabis by adolescents, the greater the risk of developing psychosis in young adulthood.

While such findings give pause, another paper entitled “Cannabis Use in British Columbia : patterns of use, perceptions and public opinion as assessed in the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey” adds new dimensions. Released in September by the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. in Victoria and the Centre for Applied Research on Mental Health and Addictions at Simon Fraser University, it confirms British Columbia as Canada’s ‘pot capital’ and cannabis as Canada’s most widely used illicit drug - one that among B.C. youth is more popular than cigarettes.

Statistics tell the tale. Between 1997 and 2003, over 25,000 charges were laid against grow operations in B.C., three times the national average. They also demonstrate how since the sixties the business has changed. Then, hippies smuggled dope for quick cash and romantic notions about turning the world “on”. Today, hydroponic equipment and high intensity lighting make cannabis a mass produced commodity that at $5 billion annually rivals the softwood lumber industry. Its potent psychoactive properties render the resulting B.C. ‘bud’ a specialty for sophisticated adult users but potentially devastating to the developing young brain.

While cannabis is more accessible and more accepted in British Columbia than the rest of Canada, the most alarming statistics apply everywhere. Use has almost doubled since 1989 in almost every category but with 22% of all male and 10% of all female respondents aged 15-24 reporting cannabis use on a weekly or daily basis, it is young men who are the biggest users.

Because such statistics represent only those willing to answer a telephone survey, they do not represent variations among regions and districts and underestimate the real number of users which is likely closer to those cited by Chiarelli.

Given how cannabis can affect the young and the amount being used by them, elementary logic suggests a generational time bomb is ticking.

Psychosis produces grandiose feelings, hallucinations and paranoia. Never mind debilitating mental illness, diminished cognitive capacity and social impairment, or that cannabis is also a ‘gateway’ drug to more devastating drugs, increased use among the young begs questions about increased violence among the young, including girls, and questions about whether early cannabis use is a factor in mass shootings. The need for such studies is now urgent.

Other countries aren’t waiting for the results. Australia’s National Cannabis Strategy 2006-2009 received ministerial endorsement in May. A potential prototype for Canada, it calls for the implementation of cannabis supply, demand and harm reduction strategies. Giving the “criminal economy” no quarter, it stresses educating the whole community about the dangers of cannabis and increasing awareness of the legal consequences for drug possession. It also raises the question of regulating the sale of hydroponic equipment - an idea whose time has surely come.

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

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