Here are answers to some of the follow-up questions you have about cannabis in Canada, with insight from two experts.
When we published our Canada + Cannabis package, we knew that not everyone would be happy. The issue of cannabis legalization is a contentious one and while we strove for informative posts and stories that shed light on the reality of cannabis use, many of our readers still had questions. And so, we’re hoping to tackle some of the specific questions that you asked us. We asked Dr. Sarah Cook, lead physician at Integra Health Centre in Toronto, and André Gagnon, communications advisor at Health Canada to help with some of the details.
Q: Why is cannabis now legal?
There are a number of reasons that have led to the legalization of cannabis in Canada. There was the growing call from the Canadian public for legalization that certainly influenced politicians. There was the acknowledgment that possession charges unfairly and unequally targeted already-marginalized communities, while those who were connected and affluent often made their problems disappear, resulting in deep inequality around these charges. There was a growing understanding that cannabis is a useful medication tool for many, and that people who suffer from anxiety, or other common ailments, might benefit from a process that allows them to access cannabis more easily, and without a prescription. And, let’s be honest, the government likely began to see that legalizing cannabis would generate money. In all likelihood, there’s no one reason why cannabis is legal in Canada—but there were definitely many factors that made it so.
Q: Isn’t smoking—even cannabis—bad for you?
“Some of the long-term effects of smoking cannabis are similar to the effects of smoking tobacco,” says Gagnon. “These include risks to lung health.” In short, yes, smoking is detrimental to your health, and it doesn’t really matter what it is you are smoking. “Smoking anything is bad,” says Dr. Cook. She also notes that smoking cannabis results in combustion which releases smoke and carcinogens that can damage the lungs, while the high heat also creates benzene, a chemical that can damage the reproductive system. It’s for this reason that Health Canada and most doctors recommend consuming cannabis in a safer way which could include using a vaporizer or consuming cannabis edibles or oils to avoid harm to your lungs. In Canada, and under the Cannabis Act, adults can consume cannabis via an oil (in liquid or capsule form), dried cannabis (in capsule form) which can be ingested and dried cannabis (in bud form) which can be vaporized.
Q: Doesn’t smoking cannabis outweigh any of the potential benefits?
For many people, the benefits of cannabis are numerous. But, thanks to the inherent risks in smoking anything, doctors will recommend finding other ways to ingest the substance. “Realistically, most medical cannabis consumers are using oils and softgels,” says Dr. Cook. Every expert and professional we asked said that you shouldn’t smoke cannabis. It’s best to vaporize or use oils to get the effects of the drug, without the harmful effects on your lungs.
Q: Why haven’t you publicized the cons of cannabis too?
It was definitely not our intention to only highlight the pros of cannabis use—but we also didn’t want to contribute to fear-mongering either. It was important to us to feature the voices of people who have experience with the substance and professionals who could speak to cannabis. The resulting research was incredibly positive—many people love to use cannabis as everything from an end-of-the-day relaxation facilitator, to an antidote to cramps or nausea to a way to manage everything from joint pain to anxiety.
We did make sure to stress that smoking cannabis is the least safe way to consume the substance. Another con of cannabis is that often people may find themselves dependent on the substance. But, truth be told, more people report little-to-no side effects of using the substance, so the cons seem—at the moment—to be minimal. What’s exciting about legalization is that while we learn more about the substance through substantiated research, we’ll also learn more about both the pros and the cons of continued or long-term use. What we know right now, is that smoking cannabis is unsafe, and driving under the influence of THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis) can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol (according to Dr. Cook). “Additionally, THC should not be consumed in anyone under the age of twenty-five,” says Dr. Cook, due to the fact that the brain continues to develop up until this age.
Q: Are you trying to normalize cannabis use?
For us at Canadian Living, our attempt was less to normalize the use of cannabis and more to supply information to the public. Like it or not, cannabis is legalized which means many people will be using the substance or trying it for the first time. And since the move was seen by many as contentious we wanted to explore the reality of cannabis in Canada. We are not promoting cannabis use or shaming those who choose to use it. We are hoping to shed light on many of the variables that might contribute to a person’s decision to try, or not try, it for themselves. We believe that offering up information—in the form of facts and stats, personal accounts and insight from professionals—is the best way to let people decide for themselves whether they want to partake.
Though it may not seem that way, cannabis use is already widespread and normalized in many communities. “Canada has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world,” says Gagnon. But, this use is among youth and young adults, which is something the Government of Canada is trying to change with education and regulation of the industry.
“I think we need much more research on it before we can really say whether it should or should not be normalized,” says Dr. Cook, who notes that not enough research has been done because, being illegal, official research was not conducted on the substance. Hopefully now that will change. As for what she would like to see before cannabis is normalized? “I would love to see much more public education of safe use, storage and dosing for cannabis in general.” The key, as always, is education.
Q: Is cannabis considered a drug?
Yes, cannabis is considered a drug. It is used for its effect on both the mind and body for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Q: How does cannabis compare to alcohol?
“The most well-established, long-term side effect of regular cannabis use is addiction,” says Gagnon. Some other similarities between cannabis and alcohol? “Both can increase the risk for mental illness, and both can affect your memory,” says Dr. Cook. But there are quite a few differences too. “Based on what is currently known, the risk of cannabis addiction is lower than the risk of addiction to alcohol, tobacco or opioids,” says Gagnon. “And, unlike substances such as alcohol or opioids where overdoses may be fatal, a cannabis overdose is not fatal.” Using too much cannabis may make you feel uncomfortable, but you will not die. It’s important to be in a safe and comfortable environment when using cannabis, to minimize risks, but unlike alcohol, cannabis isn’t linked to violent behaviour. When it comes to addiction, according to Dr. Cook, less than 10 per cent of people that use cannabis will become addicted, which compares to 15 to 20 per cent of people who use alcohol and 30 percent of those who use nicotine.
The research and effects of alcohol are well-known, substantiated and often, extremely detrimental. “Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burdens including cancers, accidents, and other illnesses, and heavy drinkers are more likely to be violent, whereas cannabis users are not,” says Dr. Cook. Plus, “there have been zero documented deaths from cannabis use directly, but we know alcohol kills thousands and thousands yearly.” The bottom line? Some people—as with any drug—may find themselves reliant or addicted. But, cannabis is less likely to be addictive than other drugs, and, will not be fatal. “Overall, I believe alcohol to be more dangerous [than cannabis],” says Dr. Cook, “but both should be used in moderation.”
Q: What does Health Canada say?
The Government of Canada’s goal is to keep cannabis profits away from organized crime, educate adults on safe and effective cannabis use, restrict the use of the substance from youth and ensure industry compliance. So while the Government of Canada is keeping a tight rein on all things cannabis, it knows there is demand, and it is hoping to provide guidelines for consuming cannabis safely. On your own, you can make sure you’re imbibing safely as well. Tips include limiting the amount you consume and choosing low THC strains, avoid combining cannabis with other substances like alcohol and opting for ingestion methods that don’t include smoking.