Reefer Madness Reboot: Canada’s Drug Strategy Centre emerging from prohibition mindset

Concerns around youth use of cannabis need to be based on better understanding of the available research.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has been touring Canada with their “The Effects of Youth Cannabis Use on the Developing Brain: Myth Busting” panel. I was at the event in Vancouver on February 12th.

This event was well-attended by people who care about youth and wanted to understand and mitigate any possible harms associated with their use of cannabis. Some also wanted to understand and increase any possible benefits. What attendees found was a panel of establishment experts caught between prohibitionist and legalization mandates, inadequately prepared to meet attendee expectations.

Parliament first appointed CCSA as the national steward of Canada's drug strategy in 1988. The CCSA reports to the government of Canada – its chair and 4 other board members are appointed by the Governor in Council (i.e. by the governor general on advice of cabinet). The report upon which the presentation was based was produced during the prohibitionist mandate of the Harper government, under which CCSA has been working for the past decade.

That the report is being presented now under a new government that has a mandate to legalize and regulate cannabis made for some awkward moments. Throughout their presentations, the panelists stated clearly that the data currently available is correlational and does not demonstrate causation, however in the next breath they characterized the effects of cannabis as decidedly detrimental. Other remnants of prohibitionist bias were littered throughout the event.

The problem the CCSA aims to address in their report is the ‘concerningly’ high rates of youth use of cannabis and the vulnerability of their still–developing brains to the negative effects of cannabis which according to the CCSA will lead to challenges later in life. In line with the abstinence focus that complements prohibition, their solution is to prevent or delay use by spreading knowledge about risks.

The key areas of risk addressed were driving, cognition, mental health, and addiction. The CCSA’s approach of presenting youth perceptions as ‘myths’ came off as patronizing. They went on to counter these perceptions with ‘evidence’ based on selective studies interpreted widely beyond the actual findings, demonstrating their bias.

For example, to demonstrate the negative effects of cannabis on cognition, the panelists shared findings from three small-sample studies that when completing certain tasks there was increased brain activity in youth who use cannabis compared to those who do not use cannabis. The CCSA experts interpreted this as indicating that the brains of those who use cannabis had to work harder which would lead to fatigue and ultimately to cognitive efficiency problems. Alternate conjectures are possible, including that the increased activity indicates greater levels of engagement and creativity.

Audience members pointed out some of the gaps in the CCSA’s presentation. A high school counselor talked about the use of cannabis for ADHD by some students who found it to be more helpful at alleviating the symptoms and more tolerable than the drugs they were prescribed. Another audience member shared her experience working with a young person with schizophrenia who found that certain strains and dosages of cannabis helped relieve symptoms more effectively and with less deleterious side-effects than other medications. The CCSA experts were not familiar with these extremely relevant areas of research.

One audience member who worked with students noted that in order for any efforts to be effective, the stigma associated with cannabis use has to be reduced. Criminalization is a large part of the stigma, and depending on how cannabis is regulated, youth may be still be criminalized under legalization. In light of that, another audience member asked about research on the harms of prohibition. The panel members had no answers to contribute in this regard either, but did express that they were not personally opposed to legalization.

The establishment experts clearly have some catching up to do in order to be relevant in the new legal landscape where there will be expectations of nuanced conversations based on a broadened scope of research and a balanced portrayal of evidence. This may lead to increased brain activity, but the risk will be worth the reward.

-Rielle Capler, MHA, PhD(c)

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