E – The board of the local public health unit agreed to send recommendations to the federal government surrounding the possible legalization of marijuana in Canada.
At the June 1 Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) meeting medical officer of health and CEO Dr. Nicola Mercer said it was important for the health unit to take a position.
“I want to take a position that says this is not a harmless product and that if, as a society, we are going to legalize this product that we need to thoughtfully consider how we are going to produce it, distribute it, promote it and sell it so that we reduce both the health concerns and the societal concerns,” she said.
The health unit is recommending that the following be considered in terms of non-medical cannabis legalization:
– adopting a public health approach that includes strict regulations around the production, distribution, promotion and sale of marijuana;
– building in enough time to develop and build capacity to implement a policy that has strict regulations;
– establishing baseline data and ways to monitor local use of marijuana and associated health and societal outcomes; and
– developing evidence-based prevention and harm reduction messaging for the public.
Mercer explained that the public health framework asks the federal government to gather baseline data before the legalization occurs so impacts of the policy change can be measured.
“Cannabis is not harmless,” Mercer said. “There are some significant potential risks for those who initiate the use as adolescents and/or become a daily or regular users of the product.”
Mercer explained the recommendations support the legalization of marijuana as long as there are strict regulations and youth access is mitigated.
She also clarified it is still unknown whether medicinal and recreational marijuana will be available in the same retail outlets.
“So currently you don’t have two places where you go for alcohol, for example, you can go to a single source for alcohol and we’re not clear whether they’re proposing two sources for marijuana versus one source.”
Though marijuana use is not yet legalized in Canada the board supported being proactive in its comments rather than reactive once the legislation is passed.
Mercer said Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health is about the fifth health unit to produce a report on the potential legalization of cannabis, with a number of other health units adding their input now.
Board member Keith Perron sits on one of the working committees in Ottawa and he said, “I think that we still have to wait for direction from Health Canada because I know that there’s some pretty heavy stuff coming down the line from Health Canada.”
He added he thinks Health Canada is working on creating guidelines for the sale of marijuana and then representatives will work with public health and law enforcement for the implementation.
“It’s still an illegal substance under the criminal code so I just want to make sure that we’re not venturing off into an area that we don’t have all the information to what Health Canada expects of the different areas,” he said.
Perron also said that data collection has really just begun at the federal level and he doesn’t want the health unit to be creating a framework for something that could be completely changed in the future.
“The government’s pretty clear that they’re moving forward with it but it’s also made it very clear that it’s not approved and there’s a good chance it may not be approved because it has to go through a process of government,” he said. “So I think that we’re maybe two or three months ahead of ourselves before that data starts flowing.”
Mercer clarified the WDGPH report is just making suggestions in the event that marijuana is legalized in Canada.
One of the most important reasons to adopt a public health approach, according to Mercer, is to address the impacts cannabis has on young people. In some locations marijuana is available in lollypop form.
“So that is targeting children and cannabis has a very significant effect of the developing brain … there is mounting evidence that early adolescent use … has the potential to permanently alter the developing brain especially … the motivational centre, things that don’t get fixed by cessation,” Mercer said.
The public health board agreed to send the recommendations to the federal government making it clear that the suggestions were only applicable if the responsible governing body approved the legalization.
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