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Highlighting a public health approach to cannabis legalization

Policy experts, patients, and leaders in substance use and public health to explore the impact of cannabis legalization in Alberta at Calgary public forum

Policy experts, patients, and leaders in substance use and public health to explore the impact of cannabis legalization in Alberta at Calgary public forum.

Marijuana use is about to become legal in Canada, but what legalization will look like and what effect that framework will have on society, and people’s health, remains ambiguous.

An upcoming forum, co-hosted by the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Canadian College of Health Leaders (CCHL), will delve into the ins-and-outs of a public health approach to regulation.

Cannabis Legalization in Canada: Implications for Public Health in Alberta will invite all Albertans into a conversation about legalization and regulation, says O’Brien Institute member Rebecca Haines-Saah, PhD, who is organizing the May 5, 2017 conference at the University of Calgary’s Downtown Campus, 906 8 Avenue S.W.

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Watch the live feed of the event here:

“We still don’t have a lot of information about what cannabis legalization will look like in Alberta, but there is a lot of important work going on in our province around substance use and public health,” says Haines-Saah, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at UCalgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.

“We want to share that work with the general public and the public health community.”

While sufficient evidence does not yet exist to say for certain what the public health outcomes of legalization will be, what we do know is that criminalization, or prohibition, has been a failure, says Haines-Saah.

A criminalization approach has not reduced the high prevalence of cannabis use in Canada, says Haines-Saah, adding that legalization will be an opportunity to reduce population harm through shifting use from an illicit market, to a safer, regulated supply for those who do use.

“It’s not that we’re saying pot is great for everyone, or that we should all switch to pot instead of alcohol or painkillers. It’s saying that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, and it’s time to make a better policy choice.”

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Event agenda and speaker bios

Dr. Matt Hill Presentation

Lori Montgomery Presentation

Cam Wild Presentation

Fiona Clement Presentation

Brent Friesen Presentation

Beau Kilmer Presentation

Elaine Hyshka Presentation

Jenna Valleriani Presentation

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah Presentation

Photos of the day

A respectful, open dialogue

Last month, Canada’s federal government tabled two bills on cannabis legalization, one to regulate recreational use, sale and cultivation of marijuana, and a second that toughens criminal penalties for offences.

Cannabis legalization has been a polarizing issue in Canadian politics since a report commissioned by then Prime-Minister Pierre Trudeau recommended de-criminalizing cannabis almost 50 years ago, says Haines-Saah, adding that, “is why policy makers must be prepared to include all voices in the discussion around legalization.”

The morning session, which is organized by the CCHL Southern Alberta Chapter will focus on physician perspectives on the use of cannabis to treat certain medical conditions, such as cancer and pain management, but will also include patient and family perspectives, in the form of a panel made-up of Albertans who use medical cannabis.

Exploring balanced and patient-centred perspectives around appropriate access to alternative therapies, such as cannabis, is vital, according to Peter Fenwick, a certified health executive with the CCHL-SAC. While access to cannabis for medical purposes has been legal in Canada since 2001, as the country implements legalization of cannabis more broadly, stigma around medical applications will diminish, he says.

“So much of the regulatory environment is unfolding before us, and as healthcare leaders we may be risk adverse to transformative change,” says Fenwick. “We all need to educate ourselves on what’s working in medical cannabis, what’s not, and why.”

The afternoon session will delve into a public health approach to legalization, and feature both local and international policy experts in substance use and social impacts.

Fiona Clement, PhD, , who along with a team of researchers from the O’Brien Institute’s Health Technology Assessment Unit developed a series of reports at the request of the Alberta Government to inform the province’s response to legalization, agrees that education is key when it comes to defining the parameters around regulation.

The report findings include evidence from systematic reviews on the potential harms of cannabis use, including motor vehicle crashes, accidental children poisonings, and exposures to second- and third-hand cannabis smoke. Public perceptions, and support for legalization, were also explored. Those findings showed that “the majority of Canadians, 65 per cent, support legalization, and perceive cannabis to be comparable to cigarettes and alcohol in terms of negative physical and mental health effects,” says Clement.

Minimizing the harms of use

That the federal government has committed to using revenue from cannabis regulation as a source of funding for prevention, education and treatment, is exciting, says Haines-Saah.

“This will be an opportunity to engage youth in drug education and hopefully provide practical, helpful information for them to think about in terms of using safely, if they’re going to do so. This is significant for public health, whereas we know about 30% of youth in Canada are active users – the highest rate of use by youth in a developed nation.”  

U.S. drug policy expert Beau Kilmer, PhD, with the RAND Corporation in California, will give the keynote presentation at the forum, describing the policy landscape and highlighting what is being learned from legalization in Colorado and Washington. 

The Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (Prairie Node), the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute are co-sponsors of this event.

For a detailed agenda, and to register, click here.

Photo gallery from the event available here