Legal Cannabis in Canada: Five Years Later

Legal Cannabis in Canada: Five Years Later
Cannabis is now widely available since being legalized in October 2018. (Heather Waldron/CBC )

As Canada marks the fifth anniversary of cannabis legalization, the nation reflects on the benefits and drawbacks it has brought. While the intent was to improve public safety, health, and reduce youth access, crime, and the illegal market, results have been mixed, according to a report by CBC Canada.

A Rise in Use

Since the country legalized the non-medical use of cannabis in 2018, there’s been a noticeable increase in its consumption. “More than a quarter of Canadian adults — 27 per cent — say they use cannabis, up from 22 per cent in 2017,” remarked Benedikt Fischer, an adjunct professor at the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health & Addiction at Simon Fraser University. Fischer further commented on the ubiquity of the substance, noting, “Cannabis has been a widely available, normalized and even promoted product.”

The Social Justice Aspect

Despite there being no direct health benefits linked to legalization, the move has brought significant social justice advantages. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, there have been “substantial reductions in criminal arrests and charges,” thereby minimizing the stigma associated with the drug. The report also states that two-thirds of active cannabis users now source their product legally.

The previously-unknown endocannabinoid system is a big deal – it helps to balance all other body systems and it turns out bodies are perfectly primed for consuming cannabis.

Protecting the Youth

In an effort to curb youth consumption, certain provinces have implemented age restrictions and product limitations. For example, Quebec raised the legal age for cannabis consumption to 21 and introduced measures like prohibiting the sale of edibles appealing to younger demographics. Fischer views such measures positively, stating, “I think there’s some positive protective effects from that.”

Concerns and Hospitalizations

However, legalization hasn’t come without its challenges. Following its enactment, provinces that allowed edibles observed an increase in cannabis poisonings among young children, emphasizing the need for child safety packaging.

Furthermore, a new study published in JAMA Network Open delved into hospitalization rates in four provinces. According to their findings, 105,000 hospitalizations related to cannabis were recorded from January 2015 through March 2021. Of these, one-third involved individuals aged 15 to 24.

Interestingly, the initial stages of legalization didn’t witness a significant rise in hospitalizations. It was only during the commercialization phase – which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic – that hospital visits increased, especially among those aged 25 and above. Daniel Myran, a family physician with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, attributes this to the growth in store numbers, which potentially leads to overuse issues.

Mental Health Implications

Another concerning observation is the potential link between cannabis and severe mental disorders. From his professional experiences, Myran noted that young men often arrive at emergency departments post-cannabis consumption, either due to withdrawal symptoms or intoxication. “They have almost a two per cent risk of developing schizophrenia within three years,” Myran highlighted. This risk stands stark against the general population’s risk, which is considerably lower than one per cent.

Romina Mizrahi, a psychiatrist from McGill University, emphasized the significance of THC content awareness. “When we talk to patients, we explain what this means,” said Mizrahi, encouraging them to be aware of their purchases.

Blissco Cannabis Corp. CEO and founder Damian Kettlewell and wife Charlene are pictured in the companies main growing room in Langley, B.C., on Oct. 9, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mixed Results on Impaired Driving

Impaired driving due to cannabis usage either remained consistent or slightly declined post-legalization, according to the CMAJ paper. However, in B.C., there’s been a reported increase in drivers testing positive for THC following vehicular collisions.

An Ongoing Narrative

Myran described the aftermath of legalization as an “unfinished story.” He and other experts are advocating for enhanced tracking on cannabis use disorders and potential substance substitutions.

“Our data, while not conclusive, is hinting that as the market expands, when you see greater levels of market maturity, new products, that you do see these increases in cannabis harms,” Myran concluded, according to CBC Canada.