Sep 07 2016
OTTAWA - Canada's doctors are calling for strict limits on legalized pot smoking, saying the minimum age should be 21 and amounts and potency of products sold to those under 25 should be tightly controlled, the Star has learned.
In a brief for a federal task force studying the legalization of marijuana, the Canadian Medical Association does not support or oppose legalization, but makes a range of go-slow recommendations. It urges more money be spent on research, medical and social services for addictions treatment, a ban on home cultivation, a ban on smoking non-medical marijuana in public places, and pilot projects before a full national rollout of legalized marijuana.
Several of its concerns will find high-profile support from Canada's police chiefs.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is recommending in a private submission to the task force a uniform minimum legal pot-smoking age across Canada, leaving the age designation to health professionals. The police chiefs also oppose home cultivation, and say a lot more money needs to be spent on training officers and developing an efficient and effective roadside drug impairment detection device.
The police chiefs' submission, like the CMA's, raises big red flags for the Liberal government as it inches closer toward overhauling Canada's drug laws.
The CMA says "ideally" the minimum pot-smoking age should be 25. It says scientific evidence shows the brain is still developing up to and beyond 25 years.
But the physicians' association acknowledges that is likely unrealistic.
Dr. Jeff Blackmer, who headed the CMA's policy formulation group, said in an interview that the experience of other jurisdictions that have already loosened pot laws and "the reality in terms of the implementation of this type of regime" led the doctors to settle on 21 years of age as the minimum.
"It's trying to find that balance between what the scientific evidence says and what is sort of the art of the possible," he said.
Even now, as marijuana use remains illegal, its use among youth aged 15 to 24 is double that of the general population, the CMA says.
Under a legalized system, those aged 25 and older are likely to share with their underage friends and so the physicians' group is calling for regulations that would mandate lower maximum purchase levels and lower THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient) levels in product sold to those under 25.
Blackmer said public health concerns must be at the heart of any new legal regime because data shows nine per cent of marijuana smokers will go on to develop a dependence at some point - a figure that rises to 17 per cent when an individual starts using in adolescence.
The police chiefs association won't publicly release its submission over concerns some of the content would give organized crime a blueprint to work around.
In an exclusive interview with the Star, Gatineau Police Chief Mario Harel, CACP president, said a big concern for police leaders is law enforcement's "capacity" to deal with drug-impaired driving.
"We have to be frank, it's actually a problem - driving under the influence of different drugs and marijuana is one of them," said Harel. He said police across Canada anticipate a "big surcharge of work" when a new regime is in place.
Police now use a standard sobriety test to detect a drugged driver. Simple roadside testing devices - akin to roadside breathalyzers used to detect alcohol impairment - are still in development and haven't been approved under Canadian law for police use.
"We need those tools to be efficient on the side of the road so we can process people rapidly to shorten the time that their liberty is limited on the side of the road. You don't want to be an hour and a half on the side of the road to do those sobriety tests," he said.
The other issue is that training is costly. Officers certified as drug recognition experts must be specially trained - in the United States - an expensive exercise, said Harel. Quebec and Vancouver are working on training programs, and the CACP says proper police training should be certified and anchored in Canada.
Harel said the CACP - which in 2013 supported a decriminalization or "ticketing" option for simple possession of marijuana - will also not take a position for or against legalization but said it will work with the government to ensure public safety.
"We're not policy-makers. We're there to apply the law. We're there to ensure the safety of the community and if the community decided that it was okay to legalize marijuana - well, our job is to apply the law, and to ensure the safety of the public."
The police chiefs' written brief is to be submitted shortly. Meanwhile, the deadline for Canadians to provide opinions to the federal task force passed last week.
The task force received nearly 30,000 submissions, via an online consultation page, emails, or written briefs.
Now it's up to the nine members appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make sense of the morass and to report by the end of November.
The briefs have not been publicly posted on the federal government's website.
Canada's pharmacists recommend the federal government should designate local drugstores as the best option to manage and dispense medical marijuana. They didn't endorse any particular option for recreational pot, but are concerned about the lack of clinical oversight of medical pot in a relaxed regime. There are some 9,750 community pharmacies in Canada along with 285 hospital pharmacies.
The CMA opposes the idea of having pharmacies distribute medical marijuana, saying it "could lend it credibility as a pharmaceutical medication, whereas placing it in liquor stores would send the message that it needs strict and formal controls."