Harper's pot stance versus science - Macleans.ca

Harper’s pot stance versus science

A new report counters many of the PM’s campaign trail claims about marijuana policy

A bag of marijuana is held up at a medical marijuana dispensary in Vancouver on Friday May 1, 2015. The City of Vancouver has become the first in Canada to regulate illegal marijuana dispensaries, despite strong warnings from the federal government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A bag of marijuana is held up at a medical marijuana dispensary in Vancouver on Friday May 1, 2015. The City of Vancouver has become the first in Canada to regulate illegal marijuana dispensaries, despite strong warnings from the federal government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck


The scourge of marijuana looms large in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s world, and in his campaign rhetoric. There are the ubiquitous Conservative Party’s “just not ready” attack ads that target Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s plan to legalize and regulate pot. And in the run-up to the election call, Health Canada spent $1.5 million in public funds to rerun its broadcast and Internet spots warning of the dangers of prescription drug and marijuana abuse. While Health Canada’s ads mesh perfectly with Conservative policy, they failed to get an endorsement from the Canadian Medical Association, which deemed the campaign “a political football on Canada’s marijuana policy.”

This week on the campaign trail, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was kicking around that pigskin with renewed enthusiasm, warning that legalizing pot would increase marijuana use, especially among youth, and would put Canadians at risk of long-term health damage. “When you go down that route, marijuana becomes more readily available to children, more people become addicted to it and health outcomes become worse,” Harper said.

Selling and taxing marijuana in stores as alcohol and tobacco are sold is “dangerously misguided,” he said. “Unlike the other parties, we will not introduce misguided and reckless policies that would downplay, condone or normalize the use of illegal drugs.” After successive governments have had success curbing tobacco use, why now open the door to marijuana? Harper asked.

Related: Our primer on the election’s 12 major issues, including marijuana

Harper’s opposition is more than rhetorical. In his first six years as Prime Minister, police reported more than 405,000 arrests for simple pot possession, a 41 per cent increase. At the same time, the United States is climbing down from its hard line on marijuana use. Recreational marijuana use is now legal in the District of Columbia and four states: Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon. Several other states have decriminalized possession, reducing it to a civil fine.

On Wednesday, the Toronto-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) entered the fray with a report that aims to use science-based findings to counter the emotion and rhetoric surrounding pot use. The global network of scientists and academics has a mandate to research and educate to “help guide effective and evidence-based policy responses to the many problems posed by illicit drugs.”

Its latest report, “Using Evidence to Talk about Cannabis,” looks at the science, or lack of science, behind common claims about marijuana use.

Although the report’s release was not timed to the early election call, it is meant to inform the debate at a time when many jurisdictions are rethinking their policies on marijuana prohibition, says M.J. Milloy, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and a member of the drug policy centre. “It’s funny; it’s almost like [Harper] read the report in advance and decided to repeat a lot of the most oft-discredited ideas,” Milloy said in an interview. “[Regarding] some of his most central concerns, the evidence that we have to date simply does not back them up.”

Here are some of the report’s findings, based on various research studies:

Claim: Marijuana is highly addictive.

“Scientific research has found that less than one in 10 people who use cannabis across their lifetime will progress to cannabis dependence, meaning that more than 90 per cent do not become addicted. The lifetime probability of becoming heroin-dependent, meanwhile, has been estimated at 23.1 per cent. Interestingly, the addictive potential of cannabis is also significantly lower than other illegal drugs, as 20.9 per cent of lifetime cocaine users, 22.7 per cent of lifetime alcohol users, and 67.5 per cent of lifetime nicotine users are estimated to become dependent . . . The negative consequences associated with cannabis dependence are far less than those associated with addiction to alcohol, cocaine, or heroin.”

Claim: “Marijuana is, on average, 300 to 400 per cent stronger than it was 30 years ago,” from a Health Canada television ad.

True, U.S. levels of THC in marijuana have increased about 300 per cent. “Concerns over increases in cannabis potency are rooted in the assumption that higher levels of THC are harmful to health. However, the harms of increased cannabis potency are not yet fully understood by scientists. Perhaps counterintuitively, some research suggests that higher cannabis potency may actually lead to a reduction in health harms (especially related to smoking), as consumers might reduce the volume they consume . . . A strict, legally regulated market for cannabis would put the regulation of THC levels in the hands of governments and public health officials, not criminal entrepreneurs.”

Claim: Legalization of pot will lead to an increase in availability and use.

“Evidence suggests that prohibition has been generally unsuccessful in reducing the availability of cannabis. In the United States, research indicates that, since 1990, the price of cannabis has decreased while potency has increased, despite increasing investments in enforcement.”

World Health Organization statistics show Canada has “the highest rates of teen use of marijuana of any industrialized country,” says Milloy. “This suggests to me that the current system isn’t working out. We’ve tried for 30 years the public security system, the arrest-the-dealer system, the demonize-the-user system and, in fact, what we’re seeing is more use, and more potent drugs [that are] easier to get.”

Claim: Regulation will not reduce drug crime.

“Cannabis regulation in Colorado, Washington State and Uruguay has diverted a substantial proportion (and likely the vast majority) of revenue from cannabis sales from the criminal market to illicit sellers, thereby decreasing the total share of the criminal market. Even a modest contraction in criminal opportunities and cartel profits can be viewed as a positive.”

Claim: Selling marijuana as tobacco or alcohol are sold is “dangerously misguided.”

The public health approach that has reduced tobacco use should be applied to marijuana, says Malloy. “It would mean the strict regulation, distribution and sale of marijuana—in other words, what we’re seeing in Washington State and Colorado and, increasingly, in other states—as a way of coming to grips with the use of marijuana, as a way of trying to reduce the harms that may come with drug use.”

The full report, and research citations, is available here.


Harper’s pot stance versus science

  1. Legalize. Regulate. Tax

  2. You know what I find ironic, when every medicinal marijuana user makes a purchase for their prescription each month, they have to pay GST. It costs me up to $60 buck a month in taxes for my prescriptions, so yes, if it was legal, it could be a real tax bonanza. I wonder, does the government realize it’s already making money off of marijuana, and how much is it making, by taxing the ill and disabled. A little rich and hypocritical to be pushing reefer madness, when the government is already collecting a tax on Medicinal Marijuana. And finally, I wonder, the tax this government collects on medical marijuana, would that be grey area tax money for the government to be collecting, knowing their stance on the war on Marijuana?

    • though I’m pretty much a Libertarian when it comes to Pot (I don’ care what people do as long as it doesn’t impact me) I must say, every person I’ve met who’s had a medical marijuana chit, aren’t really sick. they just want to get stoned without the hassle of the cops bugging them.

      Is it a wonder that so many “medical marijuana” users happen to fit the description of folks “you woudn’t want to hire”. most are just pot-heads, but again, no skin off my back.

  3. Harper needs to go, he is so out of touch with reality.

  4. The article equates legalization of marijuana to that of alcohol or tobacco. In truth there is a vast gulf between these two possibilities. Most marijuana advocates envisage a pot friendly society, complete with pot tourism, marijuana friendly bars and hotels, and the ability to light up in their own apartment; much like alcohol. Pot could be advertised and sold like alcohol and big companies would advocate and control the distribution in order to create legions of loyal users, much like say, the craft beer industry. But is this appropriate for Canada? Perhaps instead a heavily regulated intolerant form of legalization like tobacco laws are in order. Advertising bans, severe warning labels, plain packaging, health care paid for therapies designed to help Canadians quit their pot addictions, retail systems designed to hide the product from the general public and most of all: strict adherence to no smoking laws in public places and apartment buildings. Which will we choose? I wonder……

    • Gordon,

      Many buildings already forbid smokers from being tenants due to the smell. What do you think would happen when a “disabled” Canadian who’s Medicine is pot…wants to light up? If a guy can smoke pot in a unit, then someone else should be able to smoke a cigarette. ( I think they are both disgusting habits..but that is just me)

      As for the legalization of pot……just wait a few years. After the government sanctions it, the “vicitms” of pot will be suing producers / governments for causing the illness / psychosis they pick up after years of use.

  5. I would like to know what the government is going to do in regards to driving impairment regulations and prescription medications.
    When medicinal marijuana becomes legal, people are concerned what will happen if people are driving “high”. I am concerned as well. For the last 5 years I have been on numerous prescription drugs, have had 2 spinal fusions, am on long term disability, etc. 8 months ago I began using medicinal marijuana and have since gotten off many prescriptions, lost 25 pounds, am able to get off my couch, my organs are no longer failing, and so much more.
    How will our impairment laws be defined? Will patients that are prescribed oxycontin, codeine, percacet, morphine, tramadol, anti anxiety medication, or a butrans pain patch need to immediately surrender their driver’s license upon filling their prescription? Speaking from personal experience, each drug I just mentioned has impaired my driving ability by far compared to the medicinal marijuana.

    • Sheila,

      One would hope that users of pot, or other strong “medicines” have the decency not to drive. To be under the influence of any drug, and then getting behind the wheel is simply the epitome of selfish and callous behaviour. If they do it; regardless of the medicinal requirements, they should have their drivers license revoked, or they should be thrown in jail. Same punishment as that legislated for drunk drivers should apply.

  6. Legalize it now! I can’t believe that the Americans are beating us on this issue. Harper has Canada in the stone ages instead of the progressive Country we always believed ourselves to be.

  7. All this shows is how out of touch Stephen Harper and The Cons are with society.

    In addition to what has been stated in this article, check out “Smoke Signals” by Martin Lee.

    Long story short, there is a small contingent of hysteria and paranoia when it comes to cannabis. Has been for decades. Today in 2015, there are enough level-headed, well-researched folks out there who know that the jig on this game of control is up. And the election in October is going to reveal this in spades.

  8. Claim: Marijuana is highly addictive. I haven’t heard anybody claiming that for the last 30 or 40 years, so the first myth is not even a myth.
    Legalize! then all the pot dealers, pot smugglers and pot pushers will run to register to be able to sell cheaper and pay taxes … or maybe not, maybe they will just change merchandise and start pushing fentanyl and extasis near the schools or to their old customers.
    Said that, I agree on the decriminalization for possession, a teen with a couple of joints should not be punished for the rest of his life, a fine should be enough – and the police will not look the other side as they do now because they also don’t want to ruin the teen’s life.

    • hi patron. Marijuana addiction is still being mythicized by my Oakville Conservative MP Terence Young. On july 31 he sent a constituent email stating “The science is in. Smoking marijuana is addictive….”. I wrote him back; he hasn’t responded.

    • Patron,

      If you are worried about teens’ “not ruining their lives” then I would suggest you tell them not to get involved in drugs in the first place.

      I’m sure that if it does come to pass, then a legal “age of use” will be implemented; similar to that for alchol. I certainly wouldn’t want my kid involved in drug use, but I would also hope that if he did experiment (we all did) and was caught, that he wouldn’t have a record because of it.

      Kids do dumb shit…always have, and always will.

  9. I am pro-legalization but two claims here are ridiculous. One being that legalization will decrease the level of THC sold by growers who are off the grid. The other is the supposition that legalization is the US has gotten rid of the vast majority of private (non-government) sales.
    Legalization where you sell a joint for the same price as a bottle of wine in a designated store is a start but it is not going to stop teenage use in Canada. If Canada really wants to exploit this industry why not have BC pot farm tours just like the winer

    • …that was just like the winery tours. If we are going to agree pot is no different than booze, we should treat it the same.

  10. “It would mean the strict regulation, distribution and sale of marijuana”

    How can something be more regulated than being completely illegal?

  11. “Cannabis regulation in Colorado, Washington State and Uruguay has diverted a substantial proportion (and likely the vast majority) of revenue from cannabis sales from the criminal market to illicit sellers, thereby decreasing the total share of the criminal market. Even a modest contraction in criminal opportunities and cartel profits can be viewed as a positive.”

    Sure, having “gangs” make less money is a good thing, but it doesn’t actually indicate any decrease in crime. And it should be plainly obvious that we don’t pass laws to reduce crime, we pass laws to change people’s behavior. Making murder would “reduce crime” in exactly the same way these people are proposing.