Legalizing marijuana in Canada should have happened a long time ago, says a public policy researcher from the University of Calgary.
“We know that in the past, Canada’s policy has not reflected how many people use it,” said Rebecca Saah of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary. Her research includes public health and harm reduction in approaches to substance use.
In the past, people were told to “just say ‘no’ to drugs,” as in a 1980s drug awareness campaign, but research shows that is not working, at least not in Alberta.
“Quite frankly, it has not been effective at all when you look at our numbers. We have the highest rate of use among students in the developing world,” she said at Cannabis Con held recently in Calgary.
There is a need for a co-ordinated public health approach to legalization and the reality of use, she said.
“We are recognizing people use substances for their benefit. Drugs are used culturally and socially. They are embedded in our social context,” she said.
There have been unintended consequences of keeping it illegal for the last 100 years.
“The harms of prohibition are not abstract. They are actually quite tangible,” she said.
More than 500,000 Canadians have a criminal record for possession. They cannot pass a police check and may not be able to travel out of the country.
Statistics Canada numbers reported regular use among 20 to 24 year olds but after age 25 use tends to taper off.
New surveys show higher use than before but probably people have been more willing to report their behaviour now that it is approaching legalization and the stigma has been removed.
“We are going to see rates going up in the population and that may be because people are more open about sharing their use,” she said.