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Canadian teens smoke more cannabis than those in any other developed nation in the world, Unicef stated recently (Hui, 2013). In fact, the April, 2013, report said over a quarter of all 15 year olds have used cannabis in the past year alone. Despite marijuana use being so common throughout the nation, there is no clear approach to the possession of cannabis in Canada, or internationally for that matter. In this essay, I will discuss the legislation that has been decided about pot use in Canada and detail what approach to the issue would be best. I will base a large portion of this essay on the research of two books, “Cannabis Policy Moving Beyond Stalemate,” by Robin Room et al, and “Drug Policy and the Public Good,” by Thomas Babor et al. The former is more focused on policies and health effects related to cannabis use, while the latter delves more into drug use in general. Because marijuana is such a major part of the lives of so many Canadians, solid decisions need to be made about cannabis use, but due to the lack of scientific evidence, there is a stalemate in legislating the drug.

Cannabis accounts for about 80% of illegal drug use, according to figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime that were collected between from 2006-07 on people aged 15 years or older (Room, 2010) That amounts to about 4% of people throughout the adult world using the drug. Despite this fact, there isn’t a lot of discussion on marijuana in the international drug policy discussion. Furthermore, use of the drug is trending higher. According to the same 2007 stats, there is a 10% increase in the use of the drug from the mid-1990s. “The numbers are particularly striking because fifty years ago cannabis was a very uncommon drug, with pockets of traditional use in India Jamaica and a few other developing nations and use otherwise largely confined to fringe bohemian groups in a few rich countries,” (Room, 2010).

But despite the increasingly widespread appeal of the drug, particularly throughout Canada, the legislation to control the substance is hazy, as bureaucrats struggle with how to enforce existing laws, and politicians grapple with writing policies that govern the substance. The situation of cannabis use has changed over the last half-century, since its prohibition. This is evidenced by the drug becoming a part of the everyday youth culture, specifically in developed nations. The demand of the drug has been spurred on by many people marketing and selling the drug. Despite there being much effort by law enforcement and policy makers to make an impact on the amount of cannabis available to the public, those efforts have been largely futile. As is pointed out in “Cannabis Policy Moving Beyond Stalemate,” the war on cannabis has created some anger towards authorities that have been trying to curb the amount of cannabis use. Furthermore, the effort to stop the use of cannabis has resulted in many arrests and has cost billions of dollars. About 750,000 people are arrested each year in the U.S. and are charged with possession of cannabis. Furthermore, in countries that produce a large amount of marijuana, such as Mexico, there has been a massive amount of money and attention dedicated to the War on Drugs, which cannabis helps fuel. That has resulted in there essentially being a state of war at the U.S. border, (Room, 2010).

Efforts at fighting cannabis production, use and distribution has largely been made internationally, and much attention has been given to the problem at international conventions. For example, in 1998, the international community came to terms over a 10-year program to control illegal drugs. The program was struck at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session. The program’s slogan reads “a drug free world, we can do it.” However, since that time, drugs have become more pure, cheaper and available more readily than they ever were before. Much of this problem is that the drug laws are relatively arbitrary, and this often results in there being discrimination against minority groups. Among the drugs, this is most evident in cannabis, (Room, 2010). Governments are continually disagreeing about the right kind of policy to adopt.

Need for a Policy
“Cannabis Policy Moving Beyond Stalemate,” shows there is the need to control the use of cannabis. The text calls the use of the drug in our society to be an “issue.” The drug has been a part of international treaties since the 1920s and it is prohibited in the highest level of control. In fact, cannabis accounts for the largest number of drug law arrests in the majority of nations throughout the world.  But despite this long-term effort, many people have questioned whether the actual effects of cannabis on people and society justifies the widespread and concentrated effort to control it. In fact, many experts say that the results of the attempt to control it are far worth than the effects of the drug itself. If that is true, the experts say, there is no reason why governments should attempt to intervene by controlling the substance.

However, others have argued that an increasing amount of high-potency cannabis is leading to many people having mental health problems. This is particularly evident in young users. These same people say that the attempts made to control the drug are limiting the number of young people who are exposed. “Cannabis Policy Moving Beyond Stalemate,” shows there is a great divergence in the approaches to the policies in each jurisdiction throughout the world. Each of these approaches, the texts points out, haven’t been effective at reducing the amount of consumption. In fact, the research points out that the increasing trend towards people smoking marijuana is due to there being a lack of understanding, and international cultural, social and economic factors. The Cannabis Commission went on a mission to look at the evidence related to the various policy approaches, and it was meant to come up with recommendations for policies after taking a look at all of the evidence.

Scientific evidence on the effects of cannabis on health are weak
As pointed out in “Cannabis Policy Moving Beyond Stalemate,” the laws surrounding the control of cannabis need to be based on the scientific principles related to its use. Also, there is the need for there to be awareness of the political factors that would help develop policies that are based on knowledge, rather than assumption. However, the text also points out that if cannabis was proven to have adverse effects on people and society as a whole, it in itself might not be enough basis for prohibiting the drug. For example, alcohol, stairways and vehicles would have to all be prohibited if that was the basis of deciding whether or not something should be prohibited. But according to “Cannabis Policy,” the detrimental effects of these aspects represent just one component of the debate.

The report states there are just a few areas where research has shown the effects of marijuana. For example, acute effects due to cannabis use are evident, such as an impairment in the ability to drive. Also, changes in the reproductive and immunological systems are possible effects. Cannabis can negatively affect the development of a fetus. In studies that were done on animals, while using high doses of cannabis, the drug has been shown to produce growth retardation, resorption and malformations in rats, mice, rabbits and hamsters. “Birth malformations have been observed more often after crude marijuana extract rather than THC, suggesting that other cannabinoids may have teratogenic effects,” (Room, 2010). In fact, the report states THC isn’t likely to be teratogenic in people because there were only a few reports of the teratogenicity in the rodents and rabbits, which shows the cannabinoids are, at the very most, very weakly teratogenic. There are mixed results, however, and this is because of several factors. First, people using a lot of cannabis while they are pregnant is fairly uncommon, and a large sample size is needed to come to a full conclusion on whether there is a negative effect on fetal development. The studies that have been conducted are small and don’t offer many conclusions that can be taken for face value. Also there is a stigma attached to admitting to using drugs during pregnancy, and that results in there being fewer reports. Therefore, if there are a large number of people who use cannabis that are misclassified, then the relationship between using cannabis and the adverse effects will not be quantified. Also, researchers have a hard time interpreting the associations between the adverse effects and the use of the drug due to the fact that many people who use cannabis are more likely to drink alcohol, smoke tobacco and use other illicit drugs. They are also vastly more likely to have much poorer nutrition than women who aren’t cannabis users.


However, what the researchers do know is that using cannabis when pregnant results in a reduced birth rate, according to at least four studies. But the effects on the birth rate was lower than the effects from smoking tobacco when pregnant. One study, however, found there were associations between cannabis use during the pregnancy and there being a large number of birth defects. This study was conducted between 1986 and 2002 in Hawaii. Other studies haven’t been able to find an increased risk of birth defects (Room, 2010). In studies that looked at the effects of mothers who smoked cannabis during pregnancy on the development of the baby, there was evidence that shows a developmental delay just after birth in the baby’s vision. Also, there was evidence of increased startle and tremor among children of mothers who smoked cannabis during pregnancy. However, after about one month, the behaviours faded. After six and twelve months, there was no sign of a behavioural difference between baby’s that were born from mothers who didn’t smoke weed and those that did. There were, however, subtle reports of changed behaviour among children aged between 36 and 48 months, but not at 60 to 72 months. The results show that there are subtle developmental impairments that happen to children who have a shorter gestation and premature birth. In children aged 9 to 12, there wasn’t a difference in IQ scores, but there were some differences in higher cognitive processes and perceptual organization.

Taken as a whole, the post-natal effects on behaviour of the prenatal use of cannabis look to be modest. The results remain uncertain due to there not being a large enough sample size that would show the effects. “The causal interpretation of the effects reported is complicated by the inability of these studies to adequately control for confounding variables, such as other drug use during pregnancy, poor parenting skills, and shared genetic risks for impaired cognitive functioning in both mothers and their infants” (Room, 2010). The fact that there are small sample sizes and limited studies makes it difficult to make an argument for or against the use of cannabis.

Policies have been largely ineffective
Despite what the science says, and doesn’t say, the politics behind marijuana use has certainly changed over the approximate 50 years since the adoption of the International Prohibition on Cannabis, which was struck in 1961 at the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Many of the policies that have been struck haven’t been effective. The modern world has rendered many of the rules around the control of cannabis ineffective. Conventions on cannabis, and drugs in general, essentially restrict a nation’s ability to have new cannabis laws that are fashioned due to developments that affect the control of cannabis. Essentially, the system has been developed as to stagnate efforts relating to the control of drugs. Systems of control that might be more effective for the times aren’t developed because of the culture of inaction that has been perpetuated from the worldview strategy of controlling cannabis. New evidence collected about the use of cannabis and the results of any laws that are in place is essentially useless, because by the time the nations meet again to discuss progress and policy, the new evidence is now old evidence. This makes it very difficult to develop new systems of control based on the modern world. Clearly, there needs to be change in the way cannabis policies are carried out. While moving forward in the fight against cannabis is difficult, it is not impossible if each nation is able to make its own policy decisions (Room, 2010).

Furthermore, even though the policies related to cannabis are being struck on an international level, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort on these international boards to curb the amount of activity related to cannabis. Part of the reason for the lack of attention is due to the limited scientific information related to the effects of cannabis. If the policymakers aren’t aware of the detrimental effects, then it is difficult for them to make policies that govern the substance’s use. “The information available was limited and scattered, and the first attempt to revise and compile it at the regional level came last year with the publication of the technical report ‘Drug Use Epidemiology in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Public Health Approach’ (2009), which provides an overview of the situation and some recommendations for a public health approach, from an epidemiological perspective” (Babor, et al, 2010). Scientific research is often the building block of informed legislation. However, because there is a lack of this type of research available, the ability to create the appropriate regulations is difficult, and this has caused policymakers to stand still. Without the appropriate amount of information, any policymaker who would want to advocate for cannabis control doesn’t have ground on which to stand without the scientific evidence.

But another piece of the puzzle that is needed for regulators to govern the use of cannabis, is to understand what has worked and what hasn’t worked, according to “Drug Policy and the Public Good,” by Thomas Babor et al. However, according to “Cannabis Policy Moving Beyond Stalemate,” any attempts to control the substance have been futile. A group of experts, however, have managed to review hundreds of research papers and other information that was available to come up with the book “Drug Policy and the Public Good.” The researchers found “There is no single solution to the ‘drug problem,’ as it is already difficult to describe what the problem is, given the different types of psychoactive substances, their health and social impacts and the countries and contexts in which they occur” (Babor, 2010). While the scientific evidence is lacking, there is a lot of non-scientific opinions that have fueled a major part of the debate, Babor points out.

Finding a policy that works
Many of the available studies on the control of cannabis have been centred on decriminalizing cannabis. However, the studies that have been completed are relatively weak, and doesn’t give much of an indication of what the policy should be in Canada. The research that has been conducted often involves comparing the prevalence of cannabis use before and after the decriminalization law had been put into place. “Interpretations of the evidence are contested, but, evidence that tougher sanctions deter drug use or criminal offending more generally is, at best, weak” (Babor, 2010). However, the text shows that having a brief sentences for people testing positive for having drugs substantially reduced the drug use. Also, people who are tested for drugs in their system at least once a weak, if they are on criminal justice supervision, showed substantial reductions in the amount of cannabis they were consuming. If the person tests positive for having the drug in their system, they have to spend 24 hours in jail, (Babor, 2010).

Research also shows — and by presenting this research as credible shows “Drug Policy and the Public Good,” believes that this may be the best policy — that law enforcement should encourage those using the substance to enter treatment and remain there for as long as it takes for them to recover from their addiction. The texts goes on to say that drug court is a way to effectively control the use of the drug. In fact, drug courts are often more effective than having a suspended sentence or another way to keep users in treatment. However, this approach has been difficult due to the fact that the scale-up is a challenge to execute. After all, it is difficult for academics to fathom the ability for those in law enforcement to supress the use of drugs in the established drug markets through controlling the supply of drugs or enforcing sanctions. “Available evidence is more positive, however, about enforcement’s capacity to reduce adverse collateral effects of drug markets, produce abstinence in closely supervised offenders, and improve uptake and retention in treatment (as seen without judicial intervention)” (Babor, 2010). This sheds a little light on the situation, and brings optimism to the pessimism outlined in “Cannabis Policy,” but it should be noted that “Drug Policy” is making the determinations based on strategies to control drugs in general. However, it should also be pointed out that the vast majority of jurisdictions have placed cannabis in the same umbrella of drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, which is not how the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act treats cannabis.

Current treatment of cannabis in Canada
Currently in Canada, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act separates cannabis from other “substances” in the possession charge: “where the subject-matter of the offence is a substance included in Schedule I or II, other than cannabis (marihuana), is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life; where the subject-matter of the offence is cannabis (marihuana), is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.

In the case of Regina vs. Fern Edith Noreen Evers in 2011, it was discovered the defendant in 2004 was in possession of a cannabis grow operation. She was eventually charged with “unlawfully producing a controlled substance and possessing this substance for the purposes of trafficking” (CanLII, 2011). This case was unusual due to the fact that the defendant produced the marijuana for the Compassion Club, and it wasn’t part of a drug operation to provide the substance to the general public. The Compassion Club sells marijuana to people who have a doctor’s prescription for the substance. Eventually, the judge decided to fine her $3,000 and suspend the sentence. This was a conditional sentence order that also saw the defendant be placed on probation for 12 months. The defendant didn’t pay the fine. This case must have been particularly difficult for the judge to sentence, due to the fact that there are limited laws in place that govern the activities of those who produce marijuana for the Compassion Club. In a similar case — but this time involving someone who wasn’t producing the substance for the Compassion Club – a man was charged for producing and possessing with the purpose of trafficking marijuana. He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for his violations. After an appeal, he was sentenced to two years in prison, less one day. In another case, a judge decided that using marijuana isn’t a right that is set out in the right to liberty, life and security of the person. The defendant had said their use of cannabis should not be confined to the lawmakers’ definition of what should and what should not be allowed to be consumed by a person.

These are just three examples of many that indicate there is a need for clear laws that govern possession and trafficking of cannabis, due to the various levels of punishment that were handed out. As the texts point out, there is a massive amount of inaction that is going on at the global scale surrounding cannabis. That same research reveals that while there are limited studies on the true effects of marijuana on health, the reports that are compiled indicate there is limited damage done to people because of marijuana use. Yet there are still people going to jail for long periods of time because of a substance that could be just as damaging to health as alcohol, vehicles and stairways, if not less. Furthermore, as the texts point out, there is a considerable amount of damaging effects on society due to the War on Drugs. Many people are being killed due to the gang wars that sprout up from illegal operations that facilitate the cannabis marketplace. This is similar to what happened with the increase in crime during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s when, after outlawing the substance, a slew of organized crime started. However, it appears that policymakers have not learned from previous mistakes, and they continue to make a futile and expensive effort at curbing cannabis use. But as scientific evidence is compiled, there will be more ground to stand on when creating more informed policies, and if the science behind them shows that cannabis has minimal detrimental effects, then there could be more sanctioning of the drug’s use, which is happening in many jurisdictions already.

Works Cited

Babor, T., Caulkins, J., Edwards, G., Fischer, B., Foxcroft, D., Humphreys, K., …Strang, J.
(2010). Drug policy and the public good. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.” (1996). Canadian Legal Information Institute.

Hui, A. (2013, April 15). Canadian teens lead developed world in cannabis use: Unicef reportThe Globe 
and Mail. 

Room R., Fischer, B., Hall, W., Lenton, S., & Reuter, P. (2010).Cannabis policy: Moving beyond stalemate. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

R. v. Evers.” (2011). Canadian Legal Information Institute

R. v. Malmo-Levine; R. v. Caine, 2003 SCC 74.” (2003). Canadian Legal Information Institute.

R. v. Readhead.” (2008). Canadian Legal Information Institute.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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